NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At the gym by my house Monday morning, I went about my business, as always, attempting to hide my physical incompetence with the dumbbells as I waged the unremitting war against my beer-bellied physique. This day, amid the musclebound regulars, I overheard part of a conversation that has been on the lips of Tennessee Volunteer fans for the past 10 days.
“At least this year we won’t have to travel far for a bowl game,” the man in the Nashville Fire Department cutoff snorted. “I mean, are you kidding me?”
The breaking point? A 45-34 loss at the hands of middling in-state rival Vanderbilt (6-6) that saw Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur throw for a career-high 416 yards and lead the Southeastern Conference’s worst offense, statistically speaking, up and down on the Vols all night. One could hear the symphony of moans from the mostly orange-clad crowd not only in the stadium but all across the mid-state.
After the shootout, Butch Jones waited three full minutes at his post-game press conference before retreating to safety. The media had not even arrived yet.
Of course, this behavior is unprofessional. For an average annual salary of $4.1 million, Butch had better sit there, answer every single question posed to him with honesty and then invite the entire press corps out for drinks afterwards. Easy for us to say, though, how a person should behave in such an emotionally combustible situation. Ask yourself: would I graciously allow myself to be berated by a reporter’s fundamentally useless questions for 20 minutes after a career failure? I sure as hell would not; I am not cut out to be the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers.
But, neither is Butch Jones.
After eavesdropping on my fellow gym-goers’ conversation, I watched Jones’s Monday press conference, his first since the loss at Vandy, where he discussed his team’s upcoming competition in Nashville’s Music City Bowl against Nebraska on Dec. 30; a far cry from the preseason expectations of SEC East champions and a likely New Year’s Six bowl set by an irrational fan base and the mainstream media.
Guilty, all of us.
“I know there has been a lot of questions about the program I will tell you this. I will thoroughly, thoroughly examine everything in our football program and every amount of time where I’m not recruiting or not in a home or not in a high school, I am examining that and will continue to do that and that’s a process,” Jones stated. “You have to take the emotion out, you have to look at where you are at, you have to look at how far you have come and then you have to look at your deficiencies as a football team and a football program and being nine strong from position groups and everything associated with that.”
There is one common denominator that features heavily in those so called deficiencies: Jones, himself.
True, the 2016 campaign for the Vols was littered with injuries and one of the tougher schedules in college football. Young players were forced into positions that they could not have possibly been ready for given their lack of experience. The fact remains that Jones’s coaching inadequacies were the most prominent reasons for his team’s demise.
Take, for example, the November dissension of star running back Jalen Hurd. In his tweeted statement, the junior cited playing through undisclosed injuries and a lack of fit in UT’s offensive scheme as the reason for the transfer request. To most, this was viewed as a power move by another spoiled college athlete.
— Jalen Hurd (@MrHurd_1) November 7, 2016
But, consider that Hurd was on the preseason watch list for both the Doak Walker and Maxwell Awards, ran for a Tennessee sophomore-record 1,288 yards in 2015, named the Outback Bowl MVP and was expected to break the program’s all-time rushing record by season’s end. The best coaches do not mold their players to fit a set scheme; the best coaches adjust their coaching style to fit their star players.
That Hurd voiced his displeasure about his improper utilization can be viewed in any way you choose. But, it is absolutely coaching negligence on the part of Jones that more accommodations were not made to fit the style of the best player on the offense and, arguably, the best player on the team. It is the responsibility of the coach to know how to maneuver both the politics and the football schematics of that situation.
Jones’s on-field issues have long been lamented, as well.
Poor clock management in the 2015 loss at Florida and this year against South Carolina showed cracks in the armor. Against Vanderbilt, Jones elected to keep his offense on the field for fourth down while in field goal range with two minutes to play and his team down eleven points.
Hindsight arm-chair quarterbacking is one thing, but any 10-year old with Madden experience understands that down two scores, you kick the field goal and take the points. Whether Jones got mixed up in the math or the surrounding environment flustered him, the job of the coach is to be situationally aware.
None of this is Butch Jones fault, you see. The fault lies with us who expected more of him than he was capable of.
Call it the “Tony Kornheiser Rule.”
During his time at the Washington Post, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser was one of the best sports and style columnists that has ever worked in the industry and his legacy still holds up today. Even still, Kornheiser proved to be even better at radio than he was with a pen. And, if you are a sports fan, no doubt you have heard of the groundbreaking television show known as Pardon the Interruption.
Kornheiser’s lone career failing was in the Monday Night Football booth alongside Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski. Jaworski and Tirico’s roles were defined: analyst and play-by-play. Kornheiser, ever the entertainer, was meant to provide comic relief. Watch the football, hear the explanation for what you are seeing and, occasionally, laugh at the clown. But, without a true purpose in the booth, Kornheiser did not pan out as the executives had envisioned.
The moral of the story? Tony Kornheiser was and is the best at what he does but was promoted beyond his abilities because of his success in other branches of sports media.
Butch Jones suffers from the same syndrome.
Success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati got him the job, but Butch Jones has been promoted beyond his capabilities. It is our expectations that brought him to his elevated status and it is those same unreasonable expectations that brought us to the program’s current standing.
Butch Jones is nothing more than what he has show to be: an 8-4 record, a thrashing at home to the SEC’s only true power Alabama and a date on Dec. 30 in the Music City Bowl. It does not make him a bad person. It makes him an average coach put in a position to fail by his own past success and “thoroughly” examining his program would lead him to the same conclusion
On the bright side, Vol fans will not have to travel far this bowl season.