Tennessee’s 45 returning lettermen did not handpick Butch Jones as their head coach. He was hired, b-lined to Knoxville on a private plane and walked into their lives.
First impressions were immediate.
“I saw an intense man with a ton of energy,” senior long snapper J.R. Carr said Thursday.
“The first time I saw him walk — you know, he walks with a little bounce — my first thought was, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? This dude kind of walks funny,” added fellow senior Dontavis Sapp.
A little more than nine months have passed. During that time, according to multiple Vols, some impressions have changed, while others, in hindsight, were spot-on.
Jones was the ringleader of UT’s Barnum-esque uniform unveiling at Thursday’s preseason football media day. Descriptions of him orchestrating a fashion show drew eye-rolling and some “are-you-kidding-mes” from his players.
Jones is from Michigan, not Milan. This was out of his element.
The Vols are used to surprises at this point, though. While some of the initial judgments of Jones — the intensity, the energy, the drive — have held true, he’s managed to plug any pigeonholing on occasion.
“He’s able to throw little curveballs at us all the time,” senior nose tackle Daniel Hood said.
Butch Jones hosts fashion show unveiling new Tennessee uniforms
One afternoon before Jones walked into UT’s team meeting room, music was pumping through top-of-the-line speakers. Players turned the room into an orange nightclub. Jones swung the door open and was promptly called out.
“Coach Jones, show us some moves.”
“He started dancing right there,” Hood said. “You’re looking at him and you’re thinking, ‘This guy is different.’ ”
Jaques Smith got his own dose of didn’t-see-that-coming. The senior defensive end approached Jones one day and bated him into an impromptu rap battle. A room of Vols inched forward, eyeing Jones.
That’s when the coach dropped some Jay-Z lyrics on Smith.
“Coach Jones won,” recalled senior safety Byron Moore, who spilled the beans on the story. “He just busted it out off the top of his head. He killed ’em.”
No one saw that coming when Jones first arrived in Knoxville. Hood remembers sitting back and digesting the head coach’s first spiel.
“I was just like, ‘Yeah I heard that one (time), two (times), now this is the third time,’” Hood said Thursday.
Hood heard it all from Lane Kiffin. He heard it all from Derek Dooley. Both said the Vols would return to glory. Now he’s on his third UT head coach.
“I just thought, ‘OK, well let’s see what you’re all about,” Hood said.
It turns out Jones is about slogans, lots of slogans. Between his brick-by-bricks and his rise-to-the-tops, the former Cincinnati coach came wielding a cache of catchphrases. That and new rituals, like defensive players raising a fist after third down and darting down the sidelines between quarters.
Many players thought the new traditions were about as hip as Myspace.
According to junior nickleback JaRon Toney, it took time to come around, especially for some members of the defense.
“Yeah, guys would be like, ‘What is this guy talking about?” Toney said.
But just like those first impressions have been molded and modified over time, most of the Vols have gradually subscribed.
“Some of the stuff that we do and say, it’s cheesy, but as (Jones) says, that’s who we are now,” said junior wideout Jacob Carter. “Like the fist up, when they first started it, the defense wasn’t all about it. Now in practice if the defense gets a stop, the whole team is doing it.
“We’ve come a long way.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn