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VOL. 41 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 6, 2017

Jones picks a bad time to lead UT football program

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Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is carried by his players after the Vols defeated Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl. It was a high point in an otherwise disappointing season for the fourth-year coach, whose team was favored to win the SEC East and play for the conference championship.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

There was a time in University of Tennessee football history when a nine-win season and a victory over Nebraska in a bowl would guarantee a coach something just this side of a lifetime contract.

But not right now.

Instead, Butch Jones swung into the new year in new territory: the hot seat. Year 5 is a crossroads for him. And everyone seems to understand that – except the man in the mirror.

In some ways, Jones is a victim of circumstances out of his control. He’s been in Knoxville four years, but the frustration of Vols fans dates back more than a decade. UT last finished in the Top 10 at the end of the season in 2003. In 2005 (under Phillip Fulmer) through 2013 (Jones’ first season), the Vols finished with losing records six times in nine years.

While Jones gets credit for rebuilding the program from the wreckage of the Derek Dooley era, he can’t erase those three seasons from the collective memory of his fan base.

That’s why UT fans had grown so frustrated in recent weeks. After a fast start, the Vols lost four of their next seven games. Just when fans thought UT was going to be a player on the national stage again, things came apart, often in ugly fashion.

Yes, the Vols capped their nine-win season by beating Nebraska 38-24. But this wasn’t your father’s Nebraska. These Cornhuskers had lost three of their previous five games and were unranked. And this was the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, which is far from the bright lights of the college football postseason.

Yes, UT won nine games for the second consecutive year, but more was expected of a team that entered the season ranked in the Top 10 and was loaded with returning talent. Of the Vols’ four losses, two were deemed acceptable – at Texas A&M and at home to Alabama. The other two were not – South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

There is no question UT underachieved. The SEC East was there for the taking but the Vols were unable to grab it, going 4-4 in the conference.

What now? Through expiring eligibility and early exits into the NFL draft, the Vols are losing a load of talent. We are about to see how the last couple of highly ranked recruiting classes will hold up under the harsh scrutiny of the SEC.

Once upon a time, Vol football coaches were given every opportunity to right things. UT went 32 years with only two coaches – John Majors in 1979-92 and Fulmer in 1993-2008.

Of course, that was back when the university had stronger and consistent leadership in the administration and Board of Trustees.

Things are different now. There have been seven presidents of the UT system since 1999. When the next athletics director is hired, he will be the fourth person in that position since 2002.

A new athletics director can’t arrive soon enough. When UT’s higher-ups decided not to extend Dave Hart’s contract, it made him a lame duck. He’s still on the job but his hands are tied when it comes to making decisions.

With Jones facing a critical offseason, he needs all the support and direction he can get. He needs strong counsel on changes to his coaching staff. One big change occurred this week when offensive coordinator left after two seasons for the same position at Indiana.

He needs help in crafting and communicating his vision for the football program, moving forward. Those are things Hart can’t do.

As for Jones’ next boss, all signs point to David Blackburn, a UT grad and former senior associate athletics director for the Vols. Blackburn has performed admirably since being named athletics director at UT Chattanooga in April 2013.

If/when Blackburn is hired, it could be the best or worst thing for Jones.

On the plus side, Jones and Blackburn know each other from their shared time in Knoxville. Likewise, Blackburn would bring a level-headed approach to his job. Those that have dealt with him say he is not prone to making rash, quick-trigger decisions on coaches.

On the other hand, it is not uncommon for a new athletics director to want key coaching positions filled by people he hired, not people he inherited. Hart would go the extra mile to support Jones because he hired him. Blackburn would have no such built-in loyalty.

With the university going through so many changes, just how hot is Jones’ seat as we head into 2017?

Some see it as a make-or-break season. They believe Jones is toast if he does not direct the Vols to the Eastern Division title and a berth in the SEC Championship Game.

I’m not willing to go that far. There are simply too many variables, including injuries and last-second wins or losses. A coach should be judged by his or her body of work, not one season or one game.

With that said, you have to pay attention to the trend line. If you’re not getting better, some say, you’re getting worse. The Vols got better in each of Jones’ first three seasons at UT. They got worse in 2016.

Granted, injuries were a significant factor, particularly on defense. Star linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin barely played. Fellow linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. was limited. Cornerback Cam Sutton got hurt early in the season and never really recovered. The interior defensive line was decimated.

With so many key injuries, backups were forced into action. Few performed up to standards. The depth Jones supposedly had built through strong recruiting classes was exposed.

And then there was the whole Jalen Hurd saga. When was the last time a player that was in position to become a program’s all-time leading rusher quit at midseason?

Perhaps, then, this was just a perfect storm of a season where a number of factors came together to undermine a team with Top 10 talent. Or maybe it was something entirely different.

In sum, now is the time for Jones to take stock of his program and make the necessary changes. If that means consulting someone from the outside, so be it. It never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes look at things.

It might be worth a call to Fulmer. If anyone knows what it is like to go from can-do-no-wrong Vols coach to former Vols coach, it is he. And he lives nearby.

They say you either evolve or die. When it comes to coaches, you must evolve or get fired. Butch Jones should take note.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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