In the midst of roster and staff turnover, Butch Jones is facing an unexpected test headed into a 2015 season filled with promise. Before Mike Bajakian made a lateral move to coach quarterbacks in Tampa Bay on Thursday, Tennessee was one of just seven FBS schools with the same full-time staff since 2013.
Jones, suddenly without the man who coordinated his offenses every single season he’s been a head coach, is faced with a hire that could define his legacy at Tennessee.
And he might have to make more than one. Receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni has been connected with the vacant Central Michigan head coaching job. So has Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek.
Those reports, combined with others of several players considering leaving the program, have resulted in a Vol fan meltdown on social media – one the likes of which I haven’t seen since December 7, 2012 … the day Butch Jones was hired.
Recall that fans nearly revolted when Tennessee hired the one coach that somehow managed to lose a game to Derek Dooley. Jones quickly won over the Vol faithful with his clear passion for Tennessee football, his track record of success and his tenacity on the recruiting trail.
The next social media upheaval came once Jones’ staff, composed primarily of coaches who spent time with him at Cincinnati and/or Central Michigan, was finalized. Fans loudly proclaimed that a “Big East” staff couldn’t cut it in SEC country. Adding fuel to that fire, defensive coordinator John Jancek and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez were viewed as SEC washouts after their time at Georgia.
More recently, former offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was the recipient of death wishes on Twitter from fans after Tennessee’s disappointing 10-9 loss to Florida. Criticism of Bajakian died down after the Vols averaged 37 points per game during Joshua Dobbs’ five starts this season – games in which Tennessee went 4-1.
In fact, after a little over two years on the job, Jones and his staff have consistently proven their doubters wrong.
Early consensus on Jones was that he could coach and run a program, but may not be able to recruit at an SEC level. Now he’s on the verge of signing two consecutive top-10 classes (per 247Sports) – something no Vol football coach has done since Phillip Fulmer in 2002-03.
By now, you’re surely familiar with Tennessee’s banner accomplishments in 2014. The Vols are fresh off their first bowl win since 2008. Jones, in his second season, led Tennessee to their first winning campaign since 2009. You may not have known that Tennessee made a +9.9 point improvement in scoring margin this year. Or that their kick and punt return defense, a longtime liability on Rocky Top, went from the SEC’s worst in 2013 to second-best in 2014.
Consider also that Jancek and Martinez, the presumed “SEC washouts,” orchestrated quite a defensive turnaround in just two years. They famously inherited the worst “defense” in program history. Two years later, the Vols are allowing 11.5 fewer points per game. Under Jancek and Co., a team that ranked 110th in the nation in total defense in 2012 under Sunseri fielded a top-40 defense in 2014.
That’s a significant improvement thanks to a staff full of coaches many didn’t think could cut it in the SEC.
Even the most criticized member of Jones’ staff, Don Mahoney, led a unit that, in 2013, was responsible for the most prolific year on the ground for a Vol football team since 1998.
Jones’ initial staff choices certainly have worked out better than most expected thus far. The same is true for his last hire, running backs coach Robert Gillespie. When Vol legend Jay Graham unexpectedly left Jones’ staff in the spring of 2013, concern was expressed by fans and media members alike. Graham’s replacement Robert Gillespie has proven to be one of the best recruiters and position coaches in the SEC.
Tennessee football is inarguably on the rise. Ultimately, Jones deserves the credit for that. And unless the program stops improving under his guidance, there’s no reason for serious global concern about the future.
Now, please don’t read that you can’t be critical of Jones or anyone on Tennessee’s staff. I’ve consistently been critical of Jones in both our weekly in-season report cards and on Rocky Top Insider Radio. There certainly are some questions on DeBord’s background and how he would fit in Knoxville.
We won’t sugarcoat things here, but we also won’t fire up the panic siren unless it’s warranted.
Questioning, doubting and criticizing is healthy.
Just know that, time and time again, Jones has proven his doubters wrong.