The door lock chirps and the handle jiggles. Butch Jones enters his expansive office in the corner of the newly renovated Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. He has done it hundreds of times since becoming football coach of the University of Tennessee in December, but there’s still a twinkle in his eye this May afternoon.
Once inside, he pauses. Standing motionless, Jones sighs. He directs his attention toward a window, gazing up and down at the picturesque view as if seeing it for the first time. It’s a stare that suggests the coach who came from the University of Cincinnati considers it a privilege just to enter his office every morning. Not a privilege in the sense that he feels unsuited for his position. Rather, he sees endless opportunity. When Jones looks out his window, he sees a town, a stadium and a culture dying for gridiron glory. He sees a “one-of-a-kind” program. A program that should sell itself. And a program he’s privileged to helm.
“It really is something, isn’t it?” Jones says. “I haven’t had any time to let this all sink in. We hit the ground running. It’s been non-stop. And it’s been great. What a great product to sell. I’ve said it thousands of times: There’s only one Tennessee. There are very few places like this in the country. But you win with people. It’s a people business. We have the right place, and the right people in this place.”
This is how Jones operates. He manages to pull off an everyman sensibility while sharing his lofty goals with matter-of-fact bluntness. Jones doesn’t check his competitive spirit at his office door but wears it on his sleeve like a badge. He talks openly about restoring the long-lost winning ways, stopping just shy of cockiness.
The Coach’s lair
To Jones, football isn’t simply an exhilarating way to make a living. It’s not a hobby. It’s life. He lives it. He breathes it. His approach to the game is spiked with indisputable passion. He boasts of his visions. He talks of Tennessee’s unmatched traditions. In fact, his office overflows with it.
The coach’s lair sits on the southern tip of the UT’s campus. It would be difficult to find a better view in town. Just beyond the rising smokestack from the university’s steam plant, the Tennessee River curls and the Great Smoky Mountains roll on the horizon. The interior of his office serves as a museum of all things Tennessee football.
The crystal ball atop the 1998 national-title trophy glows next to a window at the end of a massive meeting table. A mural of Neyland Stadium stakes out the wall behind his desk. Run-of-the-mill football mementos are scattered all around — helmets in a few cubbies, cleats and trophies in a few others. Several pictures of Jones with his family, past players and notable sports figures like Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick occupy the remaining space.
While Jones’s office is filled with relics of the past — Tennessee helmets signed by Peyton Manning, Arian Foster and Al Wilson sit prominently on an end table to Jones’s right — he understands his job is shaping the program’s future.
Stability has been an issue in Knoxville over the past four seasons, something Jones isn’t afraid to admit. The college town enamored with football for half a century now welcomes its fourth head coach since 2008. Jones doesn’t shy away from answering where righting the wrongs begins.
“Losing is a disease,” Jones says. “And we’ve had some ills around here. Setting it on the right course all lies on the head football coach. It starts at the top. From the nutritionist to our administrators, players and custodial staff, getting everyone on the same page is on the head football coach. We’ll get there. We’re working to win every day.”
Jones checks his phone and chuckles, recalling a day not long after he arrived in Knoxville when his wife, Barb, looked at his cell phone. Wide-eyed, she asked, “Do you know you have over 550 text messages?”
Yes, the advice has been coming in barrels for the first-year coach. There has been, says the coach, a consistency throughout all the phone calls, emails and texts.
“They all said be who you are,” Jones says. “Do what you do. It’s proven. It’s worked. Don’t change. There’s a reason why you’re at the University of Tennessee. There’s a reason why they hired you as their head football coach. I’ve taken that to heart, truly.”
One of Jones’s favorites tidbits came from longtime University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr. “The great leaders sometimes tell their worst fears to their pillows,” Carr told Jones. “Leadership is lonely. You don’t have a lot of people in your corner. You have to be confident and never deviate.”
As Jones recites Carr’s advice, he smiles. The son of a small-town Michigan police chief, Jones loves to talk about leadership. He speaks endlessly on the topic. His gaze turns stern, and he thumps a closed fist against his thigh to emphasis importance.
Sometimes Jones’s leadership mantras are well-worn ones: “Anyone can present, but very few can teach.” “True leaders are built when no one is watching.” Jones makes no apologies because these aren’t sound bites. He believes them and lives them. More important, those who work for him believe the philosophy, too, something he says is evident to anyone taking the time to look around. Go to the practice field or show up at a team meeting. You will find a new style of leadership, Jones assures. Whether it will work, only time will tell, but it is new.
“I think teams and organizations succeed or fail based on leadership,” Jones says. “And I can promise you one thing: We have a coaching staff here who are thankful for this opportunity. We understand the expectations and what is required here, but we’re thankful to be here. This is why your family sacrifices for years in this profession — to be able to coach at a place like the University of Tennessee. We’re excited to lead.”
Jones hasn’t won a game at Tennessee. The only contest he’s coached was internal.
During the Vols’ Orange & White game on April 20, the score didn’t count. Records weren’t at stake. An SEC foe wasn’t lining up across the sideline.
The game was important nonetheless because Jones wanted the change to be apparent. The new leadership style was put on full display. Also evident was Jones’s hands-on approach.
During the Vols’ spring practices, the coach prepared the team — and perhaps the new coaching staff – for the mania that is Neyland Stadium by blasting the field with distractions. Over the loudspeakers came a baby’s cry, a police siren screech and a car alarm wailing incessantly.
The few pauses in the action-packed environment were when Jones grabbed a microphone and darted all over the field. He interrupted the pounding sound of hip-hop music to scream, “Too many bad habits!” and “I’m in better shape than you, and I’m 45 years old!”
Jones loves to promote competition.
Off the field, Jones views himself as a CEO. He likens his football program to a well-run business.
His focus is restoring the Tennessee brand. With that come endless promotions and speaking engagements.
In short, Jones has been saying “yes” a lot lately. He has spoken at everything from UT’s Student Government Association’s installment of new officers to numerous radio shows to the Middle Tennessee Christian School. Jones admits his schedule has been a whirlwind but sees a purpose to this madness.
“It’s all about our brand and getting our vision across,” Jones says. “I’m the CEO, and we’re in a customer-service industry. It all starts with trust. It’s our plan, our vision, and it’s genuine. It can take you three years to build trust and a relationship, and it can take 30 seconds to tear it down. The more you know your employees and the more your players and fans know you, the more they know you care about them. That makes them willing to go the extra mile for you.”
Outside his window is the faint sound of bricklayers working just below his office. The scraping of trowels over mortar brings to mind another thought Jones wants to share.
“We have a lot of building going on around here,” Jones says. “I’m watching these workers lay the bricks one day, and I start thinking: If one brick is out of place, they will have to start the whole project over. If they continue to build and that brick isn’t aligned properly, everyone is going to see that misaligned brick. We’re trying to build a foundation here, too. That’s how we’re going to build this program, this business – from the foundation up, brick by brick.”
Riley Blevins, a University of Tennessee student and freelance writer, is working as an intern with RedEye in Chicago this summer.