Butch Jones stood at the podium at Neyland Stadium’s Peyton Manning Locker Room telling a story about how Manning, a Tennessee legend and one of football’s most celebrated players, had only days earlier tried to convince him to take the job — at Colorado.
The absurdity and unlikelihood of the exchange drew laughs. But for Jones, it has been that kind of week.
Evan Woodbery on the Butch Jones hire
Call it fate, serendipity or some sort of divine intervention from the gods of college football, but the whirlwind turn of events that landed Jones in Tennessee on Friday would be difficult to duplicate.
"I am very fortunate and very proud to be your head football coach," Jones said during his first UT news conference Friday afternoon.
The introduction capped a nearly three-week search that began with the firing of Derek Dooley. While far-fetched visions of Jon Gruden — who showed no interest in the job, according to UT athletic director Dave Hart — may have consumed some fans, Hart was paring down his list through a series of interviews, offers and rejections in the last week.
Hart turned to Jones Thursday night, and the Cincinnati coach accepted the job in the early hours of Friday, ending a week for him that was just as busy as Hart’s. Jones toured and then turned down Purdue last Sunday, and then jetted to Colorado a day later where he was wooed by celebrities — Manning told him it was a beautiful place to live — and offered a huge contract.
"This room would be shocked at the things they threw at him," Cincinnati AD Whit Babcock told reporters Friday.
Babcock said Jones was set to reject Colorado’s offer and remain with the Bearcats when the phone rang and Hart was on the line, offering the chance at Jones’ purported "dream job."
Twenty-four hours later Jones was bidding farewell to his team and flying to Knoxville. Jones agreed to a six-year deal worth $3 million annually. Tennessee will pay $1.4 million to Cincinnati to buy out the remainder of his contract.
"The tradition that we have here is second to none," Jones said. "The pride that we have here is second to none. All we have to do is get a student-athlete on campus. If we get a student-athlete on campus, they should be sold."
Tennessee’s recruiting has lagged as the Vols’ glory days fade further into the distance. But Jones promised a renewed emphasis on luring in-state players. At Cincinnati, Jones dipped into Memphis and Nashville to find prospects.
"We will own our own state," he said.
Butch Jones introduced as the new head coach of the UT football team
Jones said a handful of assistant coaches would come with him from Cincinnati to Tennessee, but that he would otherwise "leave no stone unturned" in his search for the "best staff in the country." Ties to the Southeast would not be an overriding factor.
"If you can recruit, you can recruit," he said. "It doesn’t matter what area of the country. Recruiting is selling. It’s a people business."
What will a Butch Jones team look like?
Jones came up the ranks as an offensive assistant, and he runs a fast-paced offense that most identify as a "spread" attack.
"I don’t like to use that term," he said, "because I think the word ‘finesse’ is associated with it."
The offense will be physical, not gimmicky, he said.
"We’re going to be a team that takes care of the football," Jones said. "We’re going to run a no-huddle offense. We’re going to be a physical style of offense and be a pro-style offense."
On defense, Jones said, the Vols will "swarm to the football and cause turnovers," something similar to what Dooley and defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said in 2012. The difference? Tennessee is likely to return to a 4-3 look after a failed experimentation with the 3-4.
"We’ll be a team that doesn’t beat itself," he said.
Jones talked briefly to his new players after landing in Knoxville. He said he was familiar with about half the roster, either from recruiting or from scouting the Vols when they played Cincinnati in 2011. He knew enough to talk some specifics with Hart during their interview.
"He thinks we have enough talent to win in this league and he thinks Derek (Dooley) did a very good job of building this talent and building this roster," Hart said.
Schemes aside, Jones freely acknowledges being a "CEO coach" who will hire coaches and let them do their jobs without micromanagement. He has big binders full of plans and motivational lists and slogans and wants players to embrace his zeal for self-improvement.
"We’ll do some different things," he said. "It’s building a foundation to where everybody speaks the same language, from the training room, to the eating table to our strength and conditioning to our academic settings. It’s one program and we’ll be bought in to one goal. That breeds success."