(With most of college football's off-season coaching hirings and firings complete, it is now time for Crystal Ball Run to look back and try to figure out how each school did in the process. Over the next few weeks we will evaluate every new hire made this off-season and what it means fo the school, and college football in the big picture.
The first in our series starts today, with Butch Jones and Tennessee)
One of the best things about following the college coaching carousel is the semantics of it all.
For weeks (and in some cases months), athletic directors scan the market and covertly travel across the country conducting interviews, all while the coaches they are in contact with stay “focused on their own team” and “committed to their school”... you know, up until the day they aren’t any more. Once a school does make a hire, every coach was their No. 1 choice, and every hire becomes the “dream job” of the man who accepted it.
Well, except in the case of Tennessee.
That's because while the Vols coaching gig may have been the “dream job” of new hire Butch Jones (or so he says), Jones himself certainly wasn’t the candidate the school was dreaming of when they fired Derek Dooley in November. Instead Jones was no better than the fourth candidate on the list, which leads to a very bizarre situation at Tennessee right now: Unlike hires at Arkansas, NC State, Auburn and other colleges across the country, the entire Tennessee fan-base isn’t sold on Jones. The poor guy’s “honeymoon” period ended before it began. Frankly, Jones never had a honeymoon at all.
Looking at this from a big picture perspective though, what should we make of the Jones hire?
Let’s take a look.
Why We Like The Hire:
Of every coach who changed jobs this off-season, few have a more impressive pedigree than Jones’. In six years as a head coach, Jones has an impressive 50-27 record overall, 19 wins over the last two years and has had just one losing season; in a transitional first year taking over for Brian Kelly at Cincinnati. To his credit, Jones has also had success at two different schools (Central Michigan and Cincinnati), in two different conferences, in two very different coaching environments.
And while it’s not totally fair to call Butch Jones a “program builder” (since he followed in the footsteps of Kelly at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati), it is safe to say he’s a “program maintainer,” someone capable of coming in and keeping things moving along status quo. With plenty of returning talent at Tennessee, there’s little reason to think he can’t have the Vols bowling in year one.
Why We Don’t Like The Hire:
While this actually has little to do with Jones’ himself, it’s going to very hard for a lot of Vols fans to shake the notion that Jones was no better than the school’s fourth choice in the hiring process. For those who had googly eyes for Jon Gruden, a man-crush on Charlie Strong and hopes of Mike Gundy’s high-powered offense hitting Knoxville, Jones’ hire was well, a little boring. He doesn’t bring the big-name cache of Gruden, the SEC pedigree and recruiting prowess of Strong, nor the “we’re a threat to put up 60 every time we take the field” firepower of Gundy.
Simply put, Jones is just a safe, smart hire. The problem is safe, smart hires don’t rally fan-bases and get message boards buzzing.
Of course if he wins- especially right away- that’ll all be forgotten in a hurry.
Speaking of which...
What Kind of Talent Does he Inherit?:
Ahhh, the $64,000 question, and one which should help Jones quiet all the critics. Simply put, there won’t be a single new coach in college football in 2013 who inherits more talent than Jones does, and it should allow him to win games right away.
As a matter of fact, of all the “recruiting” Jones will do as the new head coach at Tennessee, the most important will be done trying to convince Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and a few others to “Just Say No” to the NFL and return to Knoxville for one more season. Each is draft eligible and each would be a high pick if they were to leave.
But if they were to return, well, honestly there’s no reason to think that Tennessee couldn’t be in the mix with Florida, Georgia and possibly South Carolina for an SEC East title next year. Those three would be joined by a veteran offensive line and a defense that does have talent, even if you’d have never known it based on the statistics last year (blame it on Sal Sunseri). Simply put, Derek Dooley’s issue was never evaluating talent or convincing it to come to Knoxville. His problem was getting that talent to perform once it got to town.
Jones should be able to tap into that talent. And the Vols should be good next year because of it.
Yeah, But Can He Recruit?:
While Jones inherits plenty of skill in the short-term, in the long-term it’s no secret that his success will be tied to his ability to get players to come to Tennessee in subsequent years. Whether he’ll be able to do that or not is an entirely different question all together.
For starters, there just isn’t a lot of uber-elite talent in Tennessee's high school football programs, meaning that for Jones to be successful he’ll need to bring in talent from beyond the states borders. It was something that Dooley was able to do when he wooed Hunter (originally from Virginia), Patterson (South Carolina, by way of a Kansas junior college), A.J. Johnson (Georgia) and others to Knoxville. And it is something Jones will need to do if he’s to have any success at Tennessee.
Beyond that, I’ve really got to wonder if Jones has the recruiting chops to handle the SEC. Yes, Jones was known as a “good” recruiter at Cincinnati, but he was never considered “elite” and rarely went head-to-head with the best teams in the region (i.e. Ohio State, Notre Dame and others) and won recruiting battles.
Granted, you can’t blame Jones for that, since really, who would choose Cincinnati when Ohio State is calling? At the same time, you can’t discredit it either. Jones has proven to be a solid, apt, good recruiter in his career, but the issue is, he'll be recruiting against guys like Nick Saban, Mark Richt, Les Miles and Dabo Swinney who are great recruiters.
Butch Jones is now swimming in the water with sharks. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s even able to survive, let alone thrive.
With a few days to reflect on everything, a pretty compelling case could be made that Tennessee actually did well for itself here. They sought to hire a guy with head coaching experience, and not only got one, but got one who is also coming off a 10-win season and has proven to be a winner at a pair of different jobs.
For Jones, the biggest factors to his success will be two-fold: Who the heck does he hire as his defensive coordinator? And what kind of assistants does he bring in to help him recruit? The first is necessary to fix problems in the short-term, and the other to continue success long-term as well.
As we said at the beginning, Jones was a solid, smart, good hire.
The problem is that in the SEC- including at Tennessee specifically- greatness is expected every single year.
Whether Jones can deliver that or not remains to be seen.
Coaching Grade: B
For all his insight, analysis and articles on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.