CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The introduction said it all.
“About four days from now there’s going to be another coach from south of here visiting Athens, Tennessee.”
Unprompted, a full auditorium at Bradley Central High School booed in unison.
“Now welcome your coach, Lyle Allen “Butch” Jones Jr.”
Wearing his standard navy blue suit and orange-accented tie, Tennessee coach Butch Jones waved to a standing ovation. Friday marked the latest in Jones’ state-wide speaking circuit. As he has done from Knoxville to Nashville to Memphis, UT’s first-year coach preached his vision for the rebirth of Vols football.
This stop on the tour came with an unspoken agenda, though.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is slated as the featured speaker for the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce’s seventh annual benefit dinner, about 30 miles north of Cleveland, on Tuesday.
Tennessee fans, of course, are not particularly fond of Saban and his four shiny national championship rings.
So what did Jones do? He accepted an invitation from the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club to speak in Bradley County. Then he drove south on I-75, right past Athens, hopped off at exit 25 and said this, “It’s nights like this that remind my how important Tennessee football is to this state.”
Heads nodded affectionately.
About 600 were on hand at the high school, whereas 1,446 tickets have been sold for the Saban event, according to a Athens Area Chamber of Commerce representative.
That disparity didn’t dampen anything. Jones arrived with talking points and hit on each. He mapped out his plan for UT, spoke about developing character in young people and then strayed from the podium, unbuttoning his suit coat for a question and answer with fans.
What Jones didn’t do was fall into the Saban quicksand. He chose to only loosely acknowledge the Alabama coach’s impending foray into his backyard. No highlighter-worthy quotes about Saban or the Tide were made to send the Internet into a tizzy.
Jones stuck to the script. He talked Tennessee. He acknowledged his Class of 2014 recruiting class currently being ranked No. 1 in the country. He bragged that his team’s cumulative 2.8 GPA is its highest ever, drawing the night’s first applause break.
The next applause came when Jones said his Vols will “carry ourselves with dignity,” adding, “We’re going to pull our pants up and tuck our shirts in.”
Speaking of pants, when asked if he’d don Derek Dooley’s now infamous orange pants, Jones plainly said, “No orange pants.”
That was applause break No. 3.
Soon after, the unavoidable Alabama question came calling.
“I’m going to ask what I think everybody here is thinking,” one bold young fan said, “When do I get to brag to my friends about beating the Crimson Tide?”
Jones didn’t bite that bait. After saying he acknowledges the importance of the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry, he responded, “Every day we’re working toward giving you your bragging rights back.”
Before being told that local government has decided that June 7 will now forever be known as “Coach Butch Jones Day” in the city of Cleveland, Jones closed his allotted time by saying the one thing Saban won’t be able to claim on Tuesday.
“I’m living my dream right now,” Jones said. “I’m your football coach.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee basketball and football. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn