Bob Shoop has done it before. Butch Jones, and Dave Hart, are betting a lot that he can do it again in Knoxville.
Tennessee’s defense was somewhere between decent and good last year under now-former defensive coordinator John Jancek, who the Vols parted ways with last week. It was lights out on third down, but ‘watch out’ on fourth down. It finished in the top five in the SEC in scoring defense, but when the Vols really needed a stop several times early in the season, it didn’t step up.
That was enough to help the Vols progress to nine total wins and an Outback Bowl victory. But heading into a crucial 2016 season where the Vols will have more expectations on them than ever before, they are betting that Shoop can take the defense to that next level.
“What can you expect from the Tennessee defense, from a Bob Shoop coached defense? I say this all the time, I came here, and I’ve been charged – I know what the expectations are here,” Shoop said in his first meeting with local media on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re here to build a championship-caliber defense, let me be clear on that. From the first time I meet with the unit later on today, we’re going to establish that championship mindset in all that we do. That’s something that’s important to me.”
Shoop led a unit at Penn State that finished No. 2 overall in the nation in total defense in 2014. It was No. 14 in that category under his guidance in 2015. And that was all at a program still recovering from the NCAA-imposed sanctions at Penn State that limited scholarships for the Nittany Lions. Previously, the Vols saw what Shoop could do when he was the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt from 2011-13.
His defense only gave up an average of 14 points per game against the Vols in three years, leading to a pair of Vanderbilt wins – the first back-to-back victories in the series for the Commodores since the 1920s. Ironically though, it was his time in Nashville, and his trip to Neyland Stadium, that laid the foundation for his admiration for UT, ultimately aiding in his decision to come to Knoxville at this time.
“This job was appealing for many reasons,” Shoop said. “Having lived in Nashville for three years, you can’t help but become aware of the most recognizable brand in all of college athletics – the Power T. You grow to realize that Tennessee football is a way of life, and that was appealing to me.
“I was at Vanderbilt in 2013 when Coach Jones was hired. I never had the chance to meet him until last week, but I always admired his process – the Brick-By-Brick mentality, the attention to detail, the intensity, the passion, the toughness, the championship culture that he’s created here, the steady improvement – from 5-7, to 7-6, to 9-4 – and a top 25 finish this year, winning two straight bowl games, winning six games to end this season. I knew it was just a matter of time, and I think this team is poised to compete for SEC championships and playoff berths.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy for either side. Jones admitted to having some sleepless nights as he pursued Shoop, a man that other SEC programs such as Auburn and LSU tried, and failed, to bring in. Shoop, meanwhile, is leaving a staff he’s been with for five years, and a man in James Franklin who took a chance on him as a relatively unheralded defensive coordinator at William & Mary in 2011.
Jones had to part ways with a defensive coordinator in Jancek who had been with him for six years. Much of the progress that both Jones and Shoop touted were, at least in part, because of the efforts of Jancek, who transformed a 3-4 mess in 2012 to a 4-3 defense that steadily improved all the way up to a 45-6 smothering of Northwestern in his final game.
“Well, first of all, any time you make a change, it’s very difficult,” Jones said. “Obviously, there are relationships that are built, and families are involved. I’ll tell you this, it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a head football coach. Sometimes you have to step back and look at everything. You have a personal side and a professional side. I’m very thankful for Coach Jancek. Coach Jancek has done a very good job for us. I love his family and I love John, but sometimes you have to step back. As a leader you’re forced to make very, very difficult decisions.”
Circling back to the bet I mentioned at the beginning, that’s exactly what Jones is doing.
With Hart as his backer, Jones is betting that the defensive coordinator who did a “very good” job can be upgraded to one that can bring a championship-caliber defense to UT. Shoop’s 3-year, $1.15 million per season deal is the largest in history for a UT assistant coach. He’ll owe UT no buyout if he decides to leave at any point. The Vols will owe Shoop all of his base and supplemental pay should they fire him without cause. It’s a bet. It’s a gamble.
“There are a lot of things that go into making that decision,” Jones added. “I don’t want to get into the specifics. That is the responsibility of the head football coach. A lot of times, you say your leadership is lonely and the only person you tell your concerns and fears to is your pillow. You try to look at anything and everything. I had a checklist of the things that I thought we needed to continue to grow upon and continue to elevate in our football program. I believe Bob is the individual that will be able to do that.”