Through four seasons as Tennessee’s head football coach, Butch Jones has taken a program that hadn’t had a winning season in three years before he took over back to relevancy. This last season was a disappointment by many fans’ standards, and even 2015 was viewed as such by some Vol fans. But Jones finally has the football program out of the dark depths to which it had plummeted before he took control.
Jones has helped pull the Vols out of the depths of their worst stretch in program history, but he’s also not been able to bring back an SEC East crown or SEC title to Knoxville in his four years at the helm of the Vols. Jones is 28-21 overall and 14-18 in the SEC in his first four years with back-to-back second place finishes in the East.
But how does Jones’ first four years as Tennessee’s head coach compare to some other notable Tennessee head coaches?
Divisional play in the SEC didn’t start until 1992, so the only recent Vol head coach that lasted at least four seasons in that span prior to Butch Jones was Phillip Fulmer. And through his first four seasons as Tennessee’s head coach, Fulmer didn’t have an SEC East title either.
Granted, Fulmer had a much better overall record than Jones does so far. Fulmer was 39-9 in his first four complete seasons (excluding his 4-0 stint as interim head coach in 1992) and held a 26-6 conference record. Fulmer’s Vols had two Citrus Bowl victories and a Gator Bowl win in that time as well. But Fulmer wouldn’t get his first SEC East crown until his fifth season as Tennessee’s head coach.
But the coach that preceded Fulmer had an even rougher start to his coaching career at Tennessee.
Johnny Majors wound up winning 116 of his 186 games as head coach of the Vols, but the start of his Vol tenure certainly didn’t hint at his future success. Majors was a mere 21-23-1 in his first four years as Tennessee’s head coach. Majors had just one winning season in his first four years as Tennessee’s head coach, and he was 10-14 in conference play. Majors never finished better than third in the SEC until he and the Vols won the conference in his ninth year as the Vols’ head coach.
Patience paid off with Majors, though. He wound up leading the Vols to three conference titles and two Sugar Bowl victories.
His predecessor, Bill Battle, did the opposite of Majors.
Battle started out with a bang, winning 39 of his first 48 games in his first four years as Tennessee’s head coach, earning a 15-8 SEC record during that span. Battle finished second in the conference in his first season as head coach and fourth the following three seasons. He also led the Vols to a Sugar and Liberty Bowl victory.
Then the wheels fell off for Battle, and he never found that same success he had early in his career. Battle would last just four more seasons after his first four, failing to reach a bowl game in his last two seasons at the helm.
The coach before Battle started out slow then picked up the pace very quickly before bolting for Florida and earning his infamous nickname.
Doug Dickey went 4-5-1 in his first season as Tennessee’s head coach. But by his fourth year leading the Vols, he had a conference title under his belt. Dickey won the SEC in his fourth season as the head coach of the Vols and had a 29-11-3 overall record and a 14-8-3 conference mark in his first four years. Dickey won the conference title in his fourth season, finished second in his fifth, and won it again in his sixth. He then left Tennessee for Florida and was known as “Tricky Dickey” thereafter.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, will ever be able to touch the start to General Robert Neyland’s career at Tennessee, however.
Neyland lost just one game in his first four years as Tennessee’s head coach back in the 1920s. Neyland was an astounding 34-1-3 in his first four seasons as the Vols’ head coach. Neyland was 22-1-3 in conference play in that span, but despite his phenomenal start he only had one conference title in that stretch. The Vols still played in the Southern Conference for Neyland’s first seven years as the Vols’ head coach.
All this data proves is that it’s hard to gauge a coach’s success or failure by their first four years with a team. Bill Battle and Johnny Majors both had extremely different starts to their careers at Tennessee, and both ended up with just as different endings to their Vol tenures as well.
Should fans be frustrated with Butch Jones after his first four years, particularly with the last two years? That’s certainly justifiable given how bad the SEC East has been and how the Vols have given it away the last two years.
But could he still turn it around and end up with a division title even as soon as next year? History says it’s possible, even if improbable given the current circumstances.