On the morning of Dec. 7, Butch Jones bid an emotional goodbye to his old team in Cincinnati, boarded a flight for Knoxville and at 9:36 a.m. typed out the following words on Twitter: "It is truly an honor and privilege to be part of the Vol Nation!"
The message was forwarded — or retweeted — more than 2,500 times. The number of Jones' followers doubled. Then doubled again.
In the parlance of Twitter, @CoachJonesUC had officially become @UTCoachJones.
If all this is gibberish to you, don't worry. We'll explain the lingo. But if you're one of the roughly 200 million worldwide users of Twitter, chances are you're already following every word "tweeted" by Jones or one of his assistant coaches, all of whom were given UT-branded Twitter accounts shortly after arriving.
"I think it keeps people involved. It generates excitement. It's a great way to reach out," Jones said. "I just want our fans to know I'm one of them, you know? I understand the position I'm in. I don't take it for granted."
UT fans hope Jones' arrival will bring improved recruiting, more wins and a return to SEC prominence.
But from the standpoint of social media, the marriage has already been a roaring success. Few, if any, SEC athletic departments have a more aggressive social media strategy than UT. In Jones, they got a coach who has been tweeting before most people even knew what it was.
Four years ago, when Butch Jones was still at Central Michigan, a young staff member named Chris Spognardi told his boss about a new social media service that seemed to be exploding in popularity among teenagers.
It was called Twitter, and its premise was simple: Users could send "tweets" — short messages of 140 characters or less — and follow the tweets of their friends, sports figures or celebrities. It was like Facebook, but removed of any pretense or flash. It was mobile-friendly, it was free and it was growing.
"We started it mainly as a recruiting thing when Twitter first started to pick up," said Spognardi, who followed Jones to Cincinnati and is now his chief of staff at Tennessee. "Then we figured if we were going to sell our program to fans, Twitter was the fastest — and cheapest — way to do it."
The recruiting aspect was an easy sell to coaches who were eager to find any way possible to reach recruits. Most of the 17- and 18-year-olds they were after had cell phones — even smartphones.
But calls were limited by NCAA rules and until recently text messages fell into the same category. Coaches found that Twitter and Facebook had become easiest way to reach kids.
"Twitter and Facebook was their email," Spognardi said.
Connecting with fans
Because social media is so ubiquitous among young people, it's easy to forget that roughly 85 percent of Americans don't use Twitter, and many of those people may have only the vaguest idea what it is.
But the service adds more than 6 million new users each month and Twitter has become a staple of the news, sports and business world. It's still far behind Facebook, which reached a billion users in October, but Twitter's grassroots-fueled growth has created a culture that encourages personal interaction — even with celebrities.
And in college football country, coaches fall into that category.
"I think so much of it has to do access — getting the inside word and hearing it right from the coach's mouth or keyboard or phone," said Jason Yellin, Tennessee's assistant athletic director for media relations, who has spearheaded many of the social media efforts. "It's personal. It's an inside glimpse, an inside look at what they're thinking."
Jones, who had a respectable 10,000 followers at Cincinnati, has now surged to 55,278 as of Sunday night and is on the verge of overtaking Georgia coach Mark Richt for third-most Twitter followers among college football coaches. Only LSU's Les Miles and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly have more.
Tennessee's main football account (@Vol_Football) trails only Michigan, LSU and Alabama nationally.
Spognardi said social media was an effective way to promote the program at CMU without spending a lot of money. Even at a department with a bigger budget like UT, the value is still a selling point.
"You can do a marketing campaign that costs thousands of dollars or you do can a social media campaign and have a direct connection (to fans) that's essentially free," Yellin said.
An online welcome from fans
After a mild backlash when his hiring was announced, Jones' account has generally overflowed with welcomes to Knoxville, encouraging messages and support for his staff.
Under his account, Jones has retweeted uplifting quotes from fans, sent out a photo of his dessert at Ruth's Chris and even announced the signing of a junior college prospect.
But does Jones actually take out his cell phone and do the tweeting himself? That's difficult to answer definitively. Much of the allure of the medium is the idea that the coach himself — not a publicist or assistant — is personally communicating with the reader. Spognardi is adamant that Jones is the one directing the personal interactions.
"I just help him manage it," he said.
Even so, many are understandably skeptical that a head coach could possibly have enough time to be tweeting regularly.
"It will never become a distraction at all," Jones said.
His assistants — "encouraged but not required" to have accounts, Spognardi says — have embraced Twitter with varying degrees of zeal.
Tight ends coach Mark Elder, the youngest staff member at 35, tweeted regularly even before he was hired. Other coaches interviewed by reporters this week seemed to search for the right buzzwords in their answers, but didn't always seem completely confident in what they were saying.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who has tweeted twice, was almost apologetic about his lack of savvy.
"You know, we're going 100 miles an hour right now," he said. "I'll do whatever we need to get the word out. But I guess you could say (tweeting) is a bit of a team effort. That's the best way I can answer that."
Butch Jones' Christmas message
Filtering out the negative
Even as Jones and his staff enjoy a honeymoon in their first few weeks on the job, there are occasional reminders of the demanding and often irrational nature of SEC football fans.
On Twitter, there's no filter for the loudest fans, and no way for a coach to avoid hearing them.
Take for example new receivers coach Zach Azzanni. Although he's already adopted a new UT Twitter account, Azzanni is committed to coaching his old team — Wisconsin — through the Rose Bowl, a sensible and fairly standard move in the coaching business.
"The only coach hired that isn't 100% Vol," one fan tweeted at him. "Makes me wonder."
Azzanni quickly responded: "Wrong! VFL," using the acronym for "Vol for Life."
Spognardi said he tells Jones to avoid reading most of the tweets sent to him directly.
"I try to show him the good stuff, not the bad stuff," Spognardi said. "You have to have a thick skin. It's easy to hide your name and be anonymous on Twitter."
Yellin said he tries to be proactive about responding to fans on the official football account, but it's often easier to let fans vent on game days rather than getting into a back-and-forth.
"You have to not let it bother you," Yellin said. "Twitter can be a very impulsive medium."
Then there are the bizarre requests, like one fan who implored in a message sent to Jones, "Why will you retweet everyone else, but not me?"
The fan may not have considered that a coach who had just been hired to the most visible position in the state of Tennessee, given a $3 million annual salary and been tasked with a major rebuilding job, had better things to do than selectively choose congratulatory messages to retweet.
So why deal with all this? Is the interaction worth the effort? Jones believes that it is.
"It's the age we're in," Jones said. "It's just another way of communicating with fans."Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.
Tennessee football coaches on Twitter
Coach Butch Jones: @UTCoachJones
Defensive coordinator John Jancek: @UTCoachJancek
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian: @UTCoachJake
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen: @UTCoachThigpen
Secondary coach Willie Martinez: @UTCoachMartinez
Running backs coach Jay Graham: @UTCoachGraham
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney: @UTCoachMahoney
Tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder: @UTCoachElder
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni: @UTCoachZA
Tennessee football can be found at @Vol_Football