It’s been no secret this offseason that many Vol fans have grown sour on Butch Jones after the way the 2016 season ended. And the national media has followed suite, as many national analysts and writers have also soured on Jones as Tennessee’s head coach. Jones has notoriously appeared on just about every major college football hot seat list that’s been created this offseason.
Although far from the majority of the fanbase, some Vol fans believe Butch Jones needs a phenomenal season in 2017 to save his job at Tennessee. One national writer, however, thinks that notion is “crazy.”
Andy Staples, a college football writer for Sports Illustrated and host of College Sports Nation on Sirius XM, was asked recently about Jones’ job security. Staples was asked “Would a 10-2 season with a loss in the SEC title game validate Butch Jones or is it too late for him barring a Dabo-esque run?”
Staples’ reply, which took the form of a brief video monologue, was rather animated.
“This question is crazy, it’s just crazy,” Staples replied. “You’re asking if Butch Jones needs to win the national title to keep his job. No, he doesn’t need to win the national title to keep his job.
“In fact, a 10-2 season with a loss in the SEC Championship Game is exactly what most rational people would consider proper progress for a Tennessee program that was way down Butch Jones got there.”
Staples would go on to point out that a 10-2 season with a loss in the SEC Championship Game was exactly what most fans and media expected in 2016. But the Vols obviously failed to deliver, and they did so by collapsing down the stretch. And Staples believes that’s the source of most of the anger and frustration from Vol fans this offseason.
“Now that’s the season everybody expected last year,” Staples said, “and I think that’s what everybody is so mad about because it looked like they were on route to do that, and then they lost to South Carolina and they lost to Vandy. And, all of sudden, things didn’t look so good. And when you pile “champions of life” on top of that, that’s just adding insult to injury.”
But if not a Dabo Swinney-like season, what does Jones need to do in 2017 to remain at Tennessee?
“For Tennessee, winning the East, Butch Jones is just fine,” Staples stated. “He got hired at a time when Tennessee had just a terrible roster. He’s made the roster better. He has improved the talent at Tennessee. So the first part of his job is accomplished.
“The second part is get Tennessee competitive in the SEC. He’s still gotta do that, but there’s really only been one year when they had a chance to do that. They didn’t do it last year, but let’s give him a chance this year and see what they do.”
Winning the SEC East, something the Vols haven’t done since 2007, would be a step in the right direction for Jones and the Vols after finishing second in the division in back-to-back seasons. But according to Staples, even if the Vols finish short of winning the division crown again in 2017, Jones should still be safe as long as Tennessee is contending for the title late in the season.
“If Tennessee is in contention for the East title in November, even if they don’t get it, I think that’s fine,” said Staples. “I think Butch Jones is doing fine at that point. Now, if the wheels fall off in September or October, sure, complain, call new AD John Currie and beg him to get a new coach.
“But considering how tough the job Butch Jones inherited was, if he can get close to the SEC East title this year, he’s still on track. I know that doesn’t satisfy all the Tennessee fans, but you gotta understand how hard the job was when he got it.”
Staples is correct: Tennessee not winning the division again this season wouldn’t satisfy many Vol fans. But barring a catastrophic season, Jones will likely still be retained as the Vols’ head coach even if they fall short of a division title yet again. And to Staples’ point, Jones did inherit a mess of a roster when he took over in 2013.
The Vols had just fired Derek Dooley in 2012, and Jones was the Vols’ fourth head coach in six years when he was hired in late 2012. The roster Jones inherited was devoid of the play-makers the 2012 roster had, such as Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Mychal Rivera. And that’s not to mention the roster attrition that had happened in previous years and the lack of quality recruiting before he arrived.
When Jones took over, Tennessee hadn’t won more than seven games in a season in five years. It would be another two years under Jones before the Vols would finally win more than seven games in a season, but Jones and his various staff members helped guide the Vols out of perpetual 5-7 and 6-6 regular seasons to back-to-back 8-4 records the past two regular seasons.
Considering Tennessee’s history, Vol fans are right not to settle for 8-4 seasons regularly. But given the recent past, that mark is a little more understandable. That doesn’t mean that record should be the expectation moving forward; but it’s worth keeping in mind the rebuild Jones has had to go through.
The Vols’ 2017 season is going to be a pivotal one no matter how you feel about Butch Jones’ job as head coach. But according to at least one national writer, Jones should be safe as long as the Vols are in contention for a division crown in November.