Evan Woodbery on the Butch Jones hire
Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess // Buy this photo
Photo by Adam Brimer, Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo
Butch Jones walked into an eerily quiet Cincinnati team meeting room on Friday morning, unsure of the response he was about to receive.
He was leaving, and he wanted to tell his players directly.
"I walked in the room and obviously it got deathly silent, and they wanted to know what was going on," Jones said. "When I told them that I accepted the head coaching position at the University of Tennessee, they all started clapping and applauding ... I'd be remiss if I didn't thank them for that."
Jones was introduced Friday as Tennessee's new football coach, capping an improbable 24-hour courtship that occurred only after Jones had turned down two other jobs and Tennessee had been turned down by two other candidates.
"I'm very instinctual. I trust my gut," Jones said. "I believe everything happens for a reason."
Jones will be charged with rebuilding a once-prestigious program that has endured three losing seasons under former coach Derek Dooley and hasn't won more than seven games in a season since 2007.
But Jones, who is 50-27 in three seasons each at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, said Tennessee's rich tradition could overcome its recent struggles.
"You're just intoxicated by the success here," Jones said. "I feel a sense of energy here and commitment."
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, who was spurned publicly by Louisville coach Charlie Strong one day earlier, met with Jones for the first time Thursday at 10 p.m. in Lexington, Ky.
Only 20 minutes into the late-night session, Hart was convinced he had found Tennessee's next football coach.
"I was impressed with his candor," Hart said. "He didn't try to sell anything that wasn't real."
Jones agreed to a six-year deal worth roughly $3 million annually, plus a $500,000 signing bonus to be paid next month.
Jones had already turned down jobs at Purdue and Colorado when he said Hart made his first contact Thursday morning.
After the meeting in Lexington that extended well into Friday morning, Jones met with his team and then flew to Knoxville. He met with his new players, talked to reporters, posed for publicity photos and then planned to start dialing recruits. Sleep would come later.
"I will give my all for Tennessee today," said Jones, quoting the sign that players slap as they leave the locker room for each game.
Jones, who turns 45 next month, introduced his wife and three sons at the beginning of the news conference. His sons took turns stating their names and ages.
"If we lose a game in the Jones household, we don't talk for a week," he joked.
Hart said Jones was on a list of roughly "half a dozen" targets that he identified at the start of the search. Strong and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy appeared to be ahead of Jones in the pecking order, but Hart said he was confident that anyone on his list could be successful.
Jones' enthusiasm seemed to win over many of the doubters who had flooded talk radio and criticized his hiring on social media.
"I don't pay any attention to that," Jones said. "That's clutter."
He cited his four conference championships in six years as a head coach and asked to be judged on his results.
"I believe in what we do," he said. "The plan is infallible if the players buy in."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.