KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Friday afternoon in the Peyton Manning Locker Room at Neyland Stadium, packed with media, university officials and fans, Butch Jones was introduced as Tennessee’s 24th head football coach.
Jones and UT athletic director Dave Hart are both hopeful the new coach will stop a revolving door that has seen four coaches come and go in a frustrating six-year stretch.
The 44-year-old Jones, 50-27 in two three-year stints coaching at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, takes over a Tennessee program wallowing in three straight losing seasons under Derek Dooley, the first time that has occurred since 1909-11.
Dooley, who went 15-21, was fired on Nov. 18 and athletic director Hart’s search ended Friday when Jones signed a six-year, $18.2 million contract.
“It is truly an honor and privilege to be your football coach,” said Jones, who becomes the Vols’ fourth coach in a six-season span, not including offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s stint as interim coach after Dooley’s dismissal.
“I’d like to thank the people for giving me this wonderful opportunity to be at the best college football program in America, and I truly believe that,” Jones said. “We’re going to do some really special things.”
Hart targeted Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, now a highly popular NFL analyst with ESPN, but that went nowhere. Hart then turned to Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Louisville coach Charlie Strong, a former assistant at Florida and South Carolina.
On Thursday, Strong declined Tennessee’s offer and chose to remain at Louisville. That same day Jones reneged on his acceptance of an offer to coach at downtrodden Colorado and Hart began his fast-paced courtship with the Bearcats’ coach.
The 19-day search ended with Jones accepting the long-term deal with Tennessee, which he called his “dream job.”
Jones, who turns 45 next month, wasn’t bothered by the fact he wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice.
“I think I was my wife’s third choice,” he said, turning to Barb, his wife of 20 years, and the couple’s three boys – Alex, 16, Adam, 11, and Andrew, 5.
Hart, who has been widely criticized for how he handled the search process, said, “Rarely in life is anything exactly what it seems to be. Life doesn’t throw us all fastballs. It throws us curves, and then you’ve got some screwballs. You have to be able to adjust.
“As a person in leadership, I always had a saying that you can keep your head about you when all around you are losing theirs.”
According to the memorandum of understanding, Jones will earn $3.45 million in 2013, including a one-time $500,000 signing bonus payable by Jan. 31, 2013, and then $2.95 million in each of the other five years of the contract.
There is a $2 million buyout for each year in the case of Tennessee terminating Jones. Should Jones decide to leave for another coaching position, he would be forced to pay a $4 million fee in 2013, $3 million in 2014 and 2015 and $2 million from 2016-18.
There are numerous financial incentives for Jones, including $150,000 for winning an Southeastern Conference championship, $400,000 for an appearance in the national title game, $500,000 for a national title, $100,000 for an AP Top 10 finish and $100,000 for a national coach of the year award.
Jones was linked to job openings at Kentucky, Purdue and Colorado before landing the job he wanted all along at Tennessee. He was being gently nudged toward Colorado by an unexpected source – Peyton Manning, who has just led the Denver Broncos to an NFL Division title and berth in the postseason after missing the entire 2011 season with Indianapolis with a neck injury that required four surgeries.
“I may get in trouble, but (Manning) was selling me on Colorado,” Jones said. “He said it was hard for a person from the University of Tennessee to be selling somebody to come to the University of Colorado. I wanted to text him back, ‘Come on, I want to go to Tennessee.’ ”
After Jones turned down Colorado, within minutes Hart was on the phone to UC athletic director Whit Babcock revealing his interest in the Bearcats’ coach.
That’s when Babcock set a deadline for Jones, saying it was unfair to fans and players to drag it out.
Jones told Babcock at 5:15 a.m. Friday that he was accepting the lucrative Tennessee offer.
Jones, who interviewed at Purdue last Sunday, met with Cincinnati players at 7:30 a.m. Friday and then, along with his family, hopped a university plane and flew to Knoxville.
At 2:30 p.m., Jones walked to the podium underneath the north stands in Neyland Stadium, wearing a suit, white shirt, orange tie and a power T lapel pin.
“I’m fired up,” he said, “because I just left my new team. I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and get started. It’s our goal to give everyone the type football program you can be extremely proud of and continue to build on the legacy and proud tradition the University of Tennessee has had throughout the years.”
Jones said he had mixed emotions when he informed the Bearcats, who will play Duke in the Belk Bowl – defensive line coach Steve Stripling will coach the team – on Dec. 27 in Charlotte, N.C., that he was leaving.
“When you’re honest with players they’ll go to bat with you,” Jones said. “I believe in total honesty with your players. I walked into the room and it got deathly silent. They wanted to know what was going on. When I told them that I had accepted the head coaching position at the University of Tennessee, they all started applauding. That’s a tribute to that program.”
The string of coaches leaving Tennessee’s program since Phillip Fulmer was fired during the 2008 season has been stunning. Lane Kiffin was hired by Mike Hamilton to replace Fulmer and Kiffin lasted one year before taking his “dream job” at Southern Cal. Dooley was brought on board, despite a losing coaching record at Louisiana Tech and no big-time college experience for a league as tough as the SEC, and he flopped.
Some of the social media criticism, even before he was introduced as the head coach, was directed at Jones for the same type of inexperience.
Hart even said early on that head coaching experience was “critically important” and that he wanted a coach that knew “the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC.”
Jones hasn’t been in the SEC before, but his teams have won four conference championships in six years.
“Les Miles and Nick Saban had zero SEC experience when they came into the league,” Jones said. “That’s all I’ll say about that.”
For the first time in six years, Jones isn’t following Brian Kelly into a head coaching position. That happened at Central Michigan when Kelly went to Cincinnati and at UC when Kelly got the job at Notre Dame.
And Jones proved himself at each stop.
In three years at Central Michigan, Jones’ Chippewaws captured two Mid-American Conference titles. After a 4-8 record in his first year at UC, Jones went 19-6 and the Bearcats have tied for first place in the Big East each of the last two seasons.
Two years ago, Cincinnati lost to Tennessee in Knoxville, 45-23, but later climbed into the top 25 polls.
Following the 2011 season, Jones was given a contract extension that included a $1.4 million buyout if he left before Jan. 1.
With a dead week in recruiting approaching, Jones plans to use the time getting acquainted with Tennessee players and support personnel and assembling a coaching staff. Former UT quarterback Tee Martin, who led Tennessee to the 1998 national championship, has been mentioned and current running backs coach Jay Graham could potentially wind up staying on Jones’ staff.
“I can assure you we’ll put together the best staff not just in the SEC, but the entire country,” he said.
He also addressed his policy with former letter-winners, and that seemed to please just about everyone in Vol Nation.
“You,” he said of the ex-players, “are the program’s foundation and we’ll have an open door policy to our practices. Our letter-winners will be welcomed back at any time.”
As for the all-important approach to recruiting, Jones said it all starts inside Tennessee.
“We are the state institution and we will own the state of Tennessee,” he said. “We’re going to be in every high school in this state and our players will understand what it means to wear the power T. They’re going to understand what it means to represent your home institution. We’ll take great pride in that.”
Tennessee opens the 2013 season at home against Austin Peay on Aug. 31.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Jones said.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)