The new coach has an old message.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones' message goes back to the days of leather helmets when football's earliest practitioners figured out the game wasn't for the weak of heart or spine. Nonetheless, their coaches probably didn't hesitate to remind them: "You gotta be tough."
In Jones' brief time on UT's sports stage, he has consistently steered most football-related topics back to toughness. Or more precisely, "mental toughness."
Jones has a lot to sell this weekend as recruits — some committed to the Vols and some not — take their on-campus visits. He can pitch an old and new Tennessee, combining the virtues of a tradition-rich program with the fresh faces and ideas that accompany any coaching change.
But the salesman says above all he wants to be genuine. So amidst all the selling, I assume the core message will get out. He wants tough players. Mentally tough players.
In a Sports Page radio interview Friday morning, he talked about bringing in Navy Seals for lectures. "You have to live toughness," he emphasized.
And you have to be consistent about it.
"Consistency and continuity with your staff," he said. "Everybody speaks the same language."
I imagined toughness permeating the program and envisioned a secretary bleeding on her keyboard as she typed through the sharpest of paper cuts. I also remembered what I saw of Jones' previous team in a Belk Bowl victory over Duke.
Jones said the University of Cincinnati president texted him as the Bearcats fell behind 16-0.
"These kids will be fine," Jones responded. "They have been trained."
These Vols await training. Their trainer awaits answers to basic questions.
"How do you persevere?" he asks. "How do you attack things?"
My impression of Jones is limited to our Sports Page interview, his introductory media conference, and whatever memories he conjures up of my Army drill sergeant. However, I doubt it will change significantly between now and the first touchdown Tennessee scores on Austin Peay.
My guess is UT athletic director Dave Hart formed a similarly quick opinion in the hiring process. Jones paints a very clear picture of what he expects his program to be. And he paints it with supreme confidence, even referring to the plan as "infallible" in his first speech as Tennessee's coach.
No wonder he has transported so much of his coaching staff from Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Tennessee. He doesn't want mixed messages. And he doesn't want
to spend much time teaching his assistant teachers.
If he's true to his message, there won't be a lot of wiggle room. Nor should there be.
The program has had three consecutive losing seasons. As the average margin of those defeats dwindled, another flaw was magnified. The tightest games repeatedly brought out the worst in the Vols.
Consumed with recruiting, Jones has familiarized himself with his roster as best he can, often through watching practice and game video on plane trips. He will reserve judgment until after offseason workouts and spring practice. But he probably has seen enough damaging video to realize this isn't the college football equivalent of Navy Seals.
He says his players seem eager. He says he's encouraged by their attitude. But ...
"We do have a long way to go in mental toughness," he added.