Ju'Wuan James on the Vols' recruiting success under Butch Jones
HOOVER, Ala. — The elevator door closed behind him. Butch Jones had been at SEC Media Days less than 10 minutes Wednesday, signing autographs inside the hotel lobby entrance.
The Big East Conference did a nice job with its media days, Tennessee’s latest coach who was hired away from Cincinnati allowed on the ride up.
“But,’’ he added quietly with a smile, “it’s nothing like this, already.’’
There is nothing like this, at least not in college football. The passion for SEC football leads grown men and women behave in peculiar ways, especially in the fall.
It also leads them to fire coaches at an alarming rate.
Jones was but one of four new coaches making the rounds Wednesday, a testament to the high expectations that come with high visibility and high salaries.
Mark Stoops of Kentucky preceded Jones on the gauntlet through more than 1,000 media types. Gus Malzahn of Auburn and Bret Bielema of Arkansas followed him.
They might not have admitted it on camera, but any of the four would probably take the 7-6, bowl-win season that rookie Hugh Freeze accomplished at Ole Miss in 2012.
None of the four are here because their predecessor won a ring and then left for a better job. None of the four inherited a roster ready to make an Alabama fan raise a nervous sweat.
Thus, the four-part harmony on a message of redemption and rebuilding.
Let’s play match the coach with the quote.
“We understand there’s a lot of hard work that lies ahead, but we’re embracing that process and working hard each and every day to improve this team.’’
Take a stab?
That was Kentucky’s Stoops, formerly the defensive coordinator at Florida State. His Wildcats were 0-8 in the SEC last year. Improve indeed.
“They’ve really bought into the ‘new day’ theme, putting the past behind them.’’
Could have been any of them, but that was Malzahn, who returns to Auburn, where he was offensive coordinator from 2009-11.
The difference is that the Tigers went 30-10 those years, including 14-0 in the 2010 national title season. Auburn was 0-8 in the SEC last year. Instead of a new day, any 2010 day would be fine.
“We’ve talked about building a championship culture, working to get (blank) football back to its rightful place among the elite of college football.’’
You can rule out Stoops. Kentucky’s rightful place is among the elite of college basketball. That leaves Malzahn or Bielema, but Jones gets the credit. The blank is Tennessee, which has slipped from the elite with four losing seasons in the past five.
“Scars are a great thing, a daily reminder of the things you persevered. I
told the team, ‘You’re gonna look back at this being a growing time instead of a dying time.’ ’’
Scars? Didn’t Derek Dooley talk about scars being a good thing, too? There are plenty to go around but today we quote Bielema, whose Razorbacks are scarred by going through three coaches in three years. That is a scenario Tennessee experienced from 2008-2010 and has yet to recover.
So what are the recovery chances for our four hopeful newbies? Jones and Stoops, in particular, have been recruiting like gangbusters, but that won’t help in 2013.
The SEC is brutal. We all know that. But of the 10 returning coaches, seven at least had winning records in their initial SEC seasons.
Freeze, Nick Saban (Alabama) and Will Muschamp (Florida) each went 7-6. Steve Spurrier (South Carolina) went 7-5. Mark Richt was 8-4 at Georgia.
James Franklin was 6-7 at Vanderbilt, which, graded on the curve of the Commodores’ morbid history, is winning.
Les Miles and Kevin Sumlin each went 11-2, at LSU and Texas A&M, respectively. That’s beyond even pipe-dream fantasy for this crop of rebuilders.
And yet, all four fan bases are re-energized. All four teams have “bought in” to a new agenda. Everywhere, offseason workouts have gone better than ever.
And Wednesday, all four coaches were winners at SEC Media Days.
Enjoy the newness while it lasts. It doesn’t last long in the SEC.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44