Did Butch Jones Bring in the “Best Football Staff in the Country?”

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    When Butch Jones was first hired as Tennessee’s head football coach on December 7th, 2012, the Vols were coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons and had just suffered through the Derek Dooley era. Tennessee fans craved improvement on the Vols’ coaching staff, and Jones promised fans just that.

    “I can assure you,” Jones said at his introductory press conference that day, “we will put together the best football staff in the country. Not just the Southeastern Conference, but the entire country.”

    Fast forward four football seasons and several coaching staff changes later, and the question can now be answered: Did Butch Jones fulfill his promise of bringing in the “best football staff in the country” when he was hired?

    Butch Jones’ first coaching staff was a blend of coaches who had experience with Jones and others who would be new voices for him. Here is who Butch Jones hired as his initial coaching staff at Tennessee:

    • Mike Bajakian – offensive coordinator
    • John Jancek – defensive coordinator
    • Willie Martinez – defensive backs/associate head coach for defense
    • Steve Stripling – defensive line/associate head coach
    • Tommy Thigpen – linebackers
    • Don Mahoney – offensive line
    • Zach Azzanni – wide receivers/recruiting coordinator
    • Mark Elder – tight ends/special teams coordinator
    • Jay Graham – running backs
    • Dave Lawson – strength and conditioning

    Although Jay Graham was originally hired as Tennessee’s running backs coach, he would leave in February of 2013 to take a similar position at Florida State. Jones would then hire Robert Gillespie as the Vols’ running backs coach.

    If you include Gillespie, the Vols now only have two coaches remaining from Tennessee’s first staff under Jones. Tommy Thigpen is the only other coach still on the Vols’ staff that was a part of Jones’ first hires at Tennessee. Stripling is still technically on staff, but he is no longer coaching a position and is instead the director of football program development.

    How did Jones’ first staff at Tennessee do throughout all their tenures with the Vols?

    Mike Bajakian was the first coach to leave from the original staff. Bajakian left after the 2014 season after the Vols’ offense finished 13th and 8th in the SEC in total offense in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Mark Elder and John Jancek were the next two to part ways with the Vols, and they did so after the 2015 season. Jancek’s defenses were ranked 11th, 8th, and 7th in his three years as defensive coordinator.

    Then came the disappointment that was the 2016 season, and Jones has had to make the most alterations to his staff since he came to Tennessee.

    The Vols parted was with Mike Don Mahoney, Willie Martinez, and Dave Lawson this offseason. Mike DeBord left for a new position, as did Zach Azzanni. Steve Stripling is still with the team, but he’s no longer a position coach. Thus the completely revamped coaching staff the Vols will start the 2017 season with.

    Jones’ original staff were together for a full two seasons. Even after the second season, only one coaching change needed to be made. So the first three seasons under Jones were with his “best football staff in the country.” That staff went a combined 21-17, including 10-14 in SEC play. The Vols were still winless against Florida in that span, but they did defeat Georgia in 2015. Tennessee didn’t, however, defeat an SEC West team nor win the SEC East during that time.

    You can even include the most recent 2016 season as part of Jones’ “best football staff in the country” era considering five of the original coaches were still on staff. Last season saw the Vols go 9-4 for the second consecutive season, and while they defeated Florida and Georgia, they also lost to South Carolina and Vanderbilt and failed to win the East yet again.

    The main core of Jones’ original staff hung around for four seasons. And in those four seasons, the Vols went 30-21 and won three consecutive bowl games. That staff also helped recruit two top-10 recruiting classes and restocked the talent on Tennessee’s roster.

    Considering how far the Vols had fallen before Jones took over, the accomplishments of Jones and his staff shouldn’t be brushed aside. The Vols aren’t “back” per se, but they’re out of the hole they threw themselves in. But that doesn’t mean Tennessee’s coaches have lived up to the “best football staff in the country” moniker.

    The Vols have no SEC titles under Jones. The Vols have no major bowl appearances under Jones. The Vols don’t even have an SEC East title or 10-win season under Jones. Tennessee’s original staff under Jones helped build the Vols back up, but they couldn’t deliver the final push that was needed to get the Vols’ to Atlanta or the Sugar Bowl over the last couple seasons.

    Any new coach should make the claim Butch Jones did when he stated he would bring in the best staff in all of college football. Fans would be concerned if he had said anything less. But when a coach makes claims such as that, he will be held accountable for them. And Jones’ claim of bringing in the “best football staff in the country” fell short.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.