Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson at SEC Media Days
HOOVER, Ala. — Butch Jones had spent no more than a minute at the podium of the main media room Wednesday at SEC Media Days when he dropped his favorite slogan and 2013 theme.
Brick by brick.
Jones has nothing if not a consistent message, and even if most Tennessee fans have heard it dozens of times during the past eight months, it was at least somewhat new to the hundreds of media in attendance this week at the Hyatt Regency-Wynfrey Hotel in suburban Birmingham.
“It’s not a fancy slogan,” Jones said of the brick-by-brick theme, which is usually accompanied by a hashtag in his Twitter messages. “Every brick is symbolic of our football family.”
Jones arrived at the podium about 20 minutes behind schedule, but had a relatively short stay. There were no controversial questions asked or major news provided.
Unlike a year ago, when former coach Derek Dooley channeled Richard Nixon with his quote about the SEC not having the Vols to “kick around” anymore, 2013 was a fairly uneventful debut in Hoover for Jones.
Asked about the Vols’ losing streak against Florida and the ascent of bitter rival Alabama,
Jones said the Vols would have to make strides to get back to the league’s top tier.
“We have to get back to being relevant and winning those football games,” Jones said.
The players accompanied Jones to SEC Media Days were more direct.
“Before ’Bama turned it around, they were terrible,” said junior offensive lineman Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. “So why can’t we be the next team that blows up?”
The Vols finished 5-7 a year ago, including an embarrassing loss at Vanderbilt that ended Dooley’s tenure. Richardson praised Dooley as a “good coach,” but resolved that the days of losing to Vandy were over.
“That won’t happen again,” he said. “I promise you that.”
While quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter were the face of the Vols a year ago, three linemen — Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Jacques Smith — accompanied Jones to Hoover on Wednesday.
“I think that shows you our strength is the offensive and defensive line,” Richardson said.
The big linemen crammed into a private jet in Knoxville for the short flight to Alabama, a bonding experience that Jones described as like a “family vacation.”
Upon arrival, the players were happy to sing the praises of their new coach.
James marveled at the progress his coach had made in a few months.
“I call him ‘super star,’ ” James said. “I feel like the whole world loves him.”
Richardson said the enthusiasm is genuine.
“I’ve never had a coach who texted me at random just to talk,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I in trouble?’ ”
Smith was even more gushy.
“He’s won the heart of every single fan and probably all of y’all’s hearts, too,” Smith said to reporters.
Well, perhaps not. The crowd in Hoover is a tad more cynical, and unless Jones can start wisecracking like South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier or shooting from hip like Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, he’s unlikely to be a star until Tennessee starts winning football games.
On that point, Jones has been forced to temper the enthusiasm with reality.
“We can’t worry about the end result right now,” Jones said. “We have to focus on the process. We have to be a better football team and a better football program minute by minute, hour by hour, day to day, month by month.”
Brick by brick?
“If we just have that focus throughout the course of a long season,” Jones said, “we’ll like our body of work when the season concludes.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.