The traditional thinking around college football is that year three or four is the defining time – the money seasons so to speak – for a head coach.
That gives him time to have the roster comprised primarily of his players and enough opportunity to put his stamp on every other player and aspect of the program.
And in a sense, that’ll be true for Butch Jones. He won’t be fired this season under any foreseeable circumstance. That’s been true since he signed his contract in December of 2012. So he’s playing with house money this year. The loss to Florida? Frustrating, disappointing and a setback, but not tenure-defining. He could finish as low as 5-7 or even 4-8 this year and he’ll get more time to right the struggling ship that has been Tennessee football.
Derek Dooley showed just how important – and difficult –year two of a coaching tenure can be during a rebuilding process. The honeymoon ends. The slogans and clichés aren’t as fresh for the fans and players. The realities of fan expectations collide with the truth that the 11 players you have on the field at a given time, generally speaking, aren’t as good as the 11 you’re facing.
Ultimately, the on-field record isn’t as important in year two as keeping the hope and the belief in your program. That’s how it started to crumble with Dooley. Assistant coaches bailed. Fans started giving up and wondering what was around the corner. Players transferred. Public relations battles were lost. The belief crumbled. It wasn’t too surprising to see the team do the same on the field the following season.
I’m not suggesting that Tennessee is in the same spot in year two under Jones. Recruiting has clearly been better. Overall public and former player relations have been exponentially better during Jones’ tenure as well. There was a signature win last season over South Carolina – something Dooley never had. The scenarios aren’t exactly parallel. Jones is well ahead when the two are put side-by-side.
As Dooley would say, however, the invasion is coming for this Tennessee team. It may already be here, in fact. And if it is, Jones will be tested like never before.
The Vols are in the midst of a three-game losing streak. That’ll end this week when they beat Chattanooga. But that’s like spelling your name correctly on the test. Nobody will care or be impressed. They will care about results against Ole Miss and Alabama after that, however. And that, in all likelihood, will lead to five straight losses in relevant contests for the Vols.
Jones seemed to have a sense for what he and his team were in for after the disappointing loss to Florida. The 2014 season wasn’t lost last Saturday, but the test got tougher.
“It’s a long, long season and we have to keep grinding,” he said. “We can’t listen to the clutter and distractions. We know who we are. We have to be a blue-collar football team. We have to scratch and claw for everything we get. We have to earn everything we get. That’s just where we’re at in the program right now. The only way I know is you have that blue-collar mentality and you keep working and you stay together. We’re being tested right now [emphasis mine].”
Running an offense behind a patchwork offensive line, playing with one of the lowest-rated quarterbacks in the SEC and throwing as many as five true freshmen on the field at any given time on offense will take a toll on everybody around the program going forward.
Much of that isn’t Jones’ fault. But it’s what he signed up for in Knoxville. And the honeymoon-like patience has already begun to fade. It won’t be any better when the Vols are likely 3-5. It could be really bad if the Vols drop a couple more down the stretch to equally-yoked programs from a talent perspective such as Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina.
The test is coming. How will Jones respond? It won’t affect his immediate future. But does doubt and frustration creep into that foundation of bricks he’s building his program with?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I do think it will be an unprecedented challenge for him and his loyal staff, however.
I can’t help but think back to Jones, early in his tenure at Tennessee, talking about how he understood pressure since he had just come from a pro sports town in Cincinnati.
That’s not how it works in my mind. The 35,000 fans who came to see the Bearcats play at Nippert Stadium could go to a Bengals game on Sunday, a Reds game on Monday and barely even be thinking about UC by the middle of the week.
Knoxville is a one-team town. Consistent losing in the football program is about as welcomed as Lane Kiffin will be when he comes to Neyland Stadium as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in a few weeks.
So while the loss to Florida didn’t take away Tennessee’s goal of making the postseason this year, it did assure that the path to get there won’t be as easy to navigate. Fair or not – criticism will come in this middle portion of the season as losses begin to pile up.
Jones seemed to feel it some this week. Some of his answers to media questions came off a little more defensive. He’s, understandably, brought up youth over and over. He was yelling at anything that moved during Tuesday’s open practice. And that’s all fine. He has the right to handle the loss how he feels is best and has the right to try to fix what he feels needs to be fixed. He’s a competitor. I don’t expect him to be some emotion-less drone that keeps an even-keeled temperament.
And maybe he passes this test. He’s done a lot of other things right so far in Knoxville. Perhaps the Vols do the borderline unthinkable at this point and knock off the Rebels and/or the Tide. Or very possibly they play them both tough, go on to run the table to get to 7-5. If so, all the criticism will vanish.
That just feels unlikely at this point. It seems more plausible that Jones continues to get tested this year and he’ll have to fight to keep the program believing and moving forward into what could be a very bright future if everything comes together. While he will ultimately be judged in years three and four, that foundation is either cracked or solidified in year two.
His test has arrived and will keep coming. How he handles it could define his long-term future at Tennessee.