Let’s go back in time to 2005. That season, West Virginia authored one of the its finest seasons when the Mountaineers went 11-1 (losing only to Virginia Tech), and won the Sugar Bowl by beating Georgia in what was essentially a Georgia Home game when the game was moved from New Orleans to Atlanta due to the damage caused to the Superdome by Hurricane Katrina.
That West Virginia team was coached by Rich Rodriguez and on his staff was a young wide receivers coach named Lyle Allen Jones, better known as a Butch. Fast forward 12 years and those two coaches are, according to some “experts”, coaching for their careers as the 2017 season approaches.
I detest coaches’ hot seat rankings. It’s just a “network time filler” that is an invention of some writer somewhere who needs to have something to write about rather than trying to actually enterprise a story. But, the fact is that every website, blog and newspaper buys into the hype and every summer ranks coaches most likely to be fired from their jobs in the next 6 months. This year they’ve gone so far as to lay odds on the first coach likely to get the ax. The winner is UCLA coach Jim Mora. But, on the top 10 of each and every list of coaches feeling the pressure are Rich Rodriguez and Butch Jones.
I have news for those Tennessee fans who are frankly rooting for their team to fail this season and have Jones be shown the door. Short of a disaster of a season with 3 wins or less (and remember the schedule has Indiana State, U-Mass, and Southern Mississippi in the non-conference), Jones isn’t going anywhere.
In all honestly I’ve been hard on Jones not so much for his coaching (and certainly not his recruiting), but for failing to actually be real. He uses pre-canned phrases all the time like “individuals”, “complimentary football” and “competition in the program.” Those words are so likely to come up at every press conference, a radio station in Nashville has taken to playing “Butch Jones Bingo” with audio from his press conferences. I have a feeling that there is someone behind all those phrases whose probably a very interesting person. You are just not going to see it.
Last year, a website ran a story talking about a culture problem inside the Tennessee program and it specifically mentioned that Jones was a person the observer believed was one, not comfortable in his own skin, and two not certain that he wanted to coach at this level. He’s without question, the highest paid employee at the University and probably the State, garnering a salary of $4.8 million per year. His family lives in a West Knoxville mansion, his kids either have or are attending private school, and his wife is a stay at home mom because when your husband makes $4.8 million, you can do that. Add in the perks that go with the job like University supplied cars and Jones may not be comfortable in his own skin, but he should at least be comfortable.
In some respects the criticism is fair. Last year’s team was the most talented and experienced group Tennessee had in a long while. They were everyone’s pick to win the SEC East, but whether it was a chemistry problem in the locker room, or a lack of leadership the flaws were evident from the beginning. The Volunteers needed a miracle fumble recovery in overtime just to beat Appalachian State on opening night in a game where they were outplayed and outcoached. The arrow appeared to be pointing up a couple of weeks later when they came back from 28 points down to beat Florida for the first time in 11 years. It seemed even better when they hit a Hail Mary pass to beat Georgia a few weeks later.
Dusting off Florida and Georgia in the same year will typically get you an SEC East Title. However, there was a late season meltdown at South Carolina where a quarterback who should have still been in high school befuddled the Volunteer defense, and an inexplicable loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville when all Tennessee had to do was win and they could book reservations for a New Years’ Night game in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama made them look like a J.V. team, and I still can’t figure out how they lost at Texas A&M with a two touchdown lead with under 5 minutes to go.
Jones’ strong point is recruiting. He can real ’em in, but he apparently needs help coaching them and maybe he realized that during the offseason. Typically when you see assistant coaches getting fired or leaving on their own, it’s not a positive sign. Former coach Derek Dooley lost all but a couple of assistant coaches before his final season and we all know how that worked out. During the off-season offensive coordinator Mike DeBoard – a longtime Jones’ friend and colleague – left Tennessee to take the offensive coordinator job at Indiana. That’s Indiana football, not basketball. Another long-time aide Zack Azzani, the wide receiver’s coach who had been with Jones at both prior stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati left to go to the NFL’s bottom-feeding Chicago Bears, Defensive Line Coach Steve Stripling was moved to an administrative position and Jones was at least smart enough to ditch no-coaching Willie Martinez. Martinez is the classic example of a lifetime “failer-upper.” The worst unit on the team last year was the secondary and guess who was their coach….you got it, Martinez.
In their place, Jones promoted from in-house making receiver’s coach Larry Scott the new offensive coordinator, added a quarterback coach without coordinator responsibilities, and hired failed Michigan coach Brady Hoke to coach the Defensive Line just one year after Hoke coordinated one of the worst defenses in the country at Oregon. Jones biggest offseason hire however may have been Rock Gullickson. Gullickson, a lifetime strength and conditioning coach in the NFL, came to Rocky Top from the Los Angeles Rams. He was a major part of the Rams’ “Hard Knocks” show last August and in addition to strength and conditioning, also spent a lot of his time snapping for quarterbacks in practice. The fact is that Tennessee wasn’t tough enough mentally or physically last year and if Gullickson can make them tougher, then the talent is clearly there to be better or at least not get injured and meltdown against inferior opponents.
This Tennessee team is a true mystery and if I were Jones, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve always said, you win when you aren’t expected to so while many want to shovel dirt on his grave, I’m not going to be the least bit surprised to see them win the SEC East. To do so there are certain things they’ll have to address. With Quarterback Josh Dobbs graduating, Tennessee has lost 238 yards per game passing, 28 touchdown passes and did I mention Dobbs was their leading rusher with 1,093 yards and 12 Touchdowns. In his place battling for the job are two year backup Quentin Dormady, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Jones would be wise to pick one and get him ready quickly, but if he holds true to form we won’t know until game time on Labor Day night to prevent the loser of the competition from suddenly transferring to East Mississippi Community College. Guarantano is clearly who they are banking their future on (right now anyway until the next recruiting class), but this kid seems to struggle with reality since he’s the one who announced he’d be attending Tennessee on a large video board in Times Square in New York City. You can do that shit, but you’d better be the best thing since Tom Brady.
More problematic is the porous Tennessee defense that frankly quit against Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Defense gave up 28.8 points per game last year. Teams had no trouble throwing over them and running through them and their second year coordinator Bob Shoop has to figure all of that out while having to deal with a lawsuit filed by his former employer – Penn State – seeking breach of contract damages. Clearly the odds are stacked against Tennessee. The Vols haven’t won an SEC title since 1998 and the “experts” are all picking Florida and Georgia to win the East. I’ll tell you now that Florida may, but Georgia won’t because I’m not buying Kirby Smart’s bullshit.
Who would have thought in 2005 that Jones would actually have a better coaching gig right now than Rodriguez. While Jones may not show you his true colors, Rodriguez wears his emotions on his sleeve, and is one of college football’s true “whack-jobs.” A West Virginia native, Rodriguez is the king of the bad career move. During his time at WVU, he won 60 games, four Big East Titles and went to two BCS games. For three years between 2005 and 2007 his teams went 32-5. But, there are two things that can bring a coach down, a woman other than your wife, and a gigantic ego. There’s no evidence of the former, but he certainly has the later.
His 2007 team went 10-2, and was just a win over Pittsburgh from playing in the BCS National Title game. The results were a disaster. West Virginia lost, Rodriguez got pissed off at then WVU A.D. Ed Pastilong for not giving him what he wanted in terms of facilities, and took the job at Michigan, taking time to shred files in his office in Morgantown before going to Ann Arbor.
His brash attitude and hyper sensitivity was just a recipe for trouble at Michigan and that’s what he got. 3-9, 5-7 and 7-6 equals fired at one of College Football’s Blue Bloods. Out of the business Rodriguez spent a year as an analyst for the CBS Sports Network, and in all fairness he was pretty good. In 2012, however, the lure of coaching hooked him again and he took the job at Arizona. Of the original 10 PAC-12 programs, Arizona is the ONLY one to never play in the Rose Bowl. After 8-5 years in 2012 and 2013, Rodriguez’s 2014 team went 10-4 and won the PAC-12 South title. They played in the Fiesta Bowl and it appeared that Rodriguez was about to duplicate at Arizona what he’d done at West Virginia. Then came a 7-6 in 2015 and then a thud with a 3-9 last year.
Arizona is not about to be confused with a football power. It’s primarily known for its basketball, but I don’t know why you can’t recruit there. If you’ve ever been there, the weather is beautiful and if you are young man (or an old one for that matter) what walks around the campus looks even better. Visit it, and you’d never want to go anyplace else.
Rodriguez swore he’d address the teams issues in recruiting and this year’s recruiting class included his own son who signed with Arizona from a Tuscon high school where he played quarterback. But, all the pre-season prognostications have Arizona finishing last in the 6 team PAC-12 South. He’s working for an A.D. that didn’t hire him and even at Arizona they are concerned with wins and putting asses in the seats.
Both Rodriguez and Jones would love nothing more than to party like it’s 2005 again this season. And, remember for those of us with a fondness for the Mountain State, there is magic in them there hills.