Although you might not have noticed, Tennessee is in the midst of a successful season.
You might not have noticed because no one keeps score on a caravan. The Big Orange Caravan simply rolls along through the heartland of its fan base without a single number being logged on either side of the ledger.
Last stop: Monday in Kingsport. Next stop: Tuesday in Atlanta.
Obvious question: If no one keeps score on a caravan, how do I know it’s successful?
Obvious answer: Because Butch Jones is on it.
UT probably hasn’t had a football coach whose skills match up so well with the demands of this goodwill mission. That’s not just my opinion.
“I’ve been here for 11 football coaches,” said Gus Manning, a longtime Tennessee sports publicist and administrator. “Butch Jones is the best public-relations man of all of them.”
You got an inkling of that last December on the day Jones was introduced as Tennessee’s new football coach. And I experienced it firsthand, thanks to my dreadful sense of directions, which led me to a gathering of boosters as opposed to the room designated for media.
While some of the boosters were probably wondering about the security breach, two others greeted me with an unsolicited and glowing assessment of the new coach. Kool-Aid was the drink of the day.
It has been a suitable drink for the Big Orange caravan as well.
Jones makes you believe. This trait is as apparent in a one-on-one discussion with a dispassionate observer as it is with a throng of UT zealots.
He tells you he will build this program brick by brick as he builds believability one speech at a time.
“Team 117,” he calls it, a not-so-subtle hint to focus more on the big picture of a program that has been historically successful than one that has impugned its tradition through three consecutive seven-loss seasons.
His believability isn’t limited to fans. He also has made inroads with recruits.
May recruiting rankings might be only slightly less misleading than NFL preseason games. But Tennessee football has been down long enough that any positive recognition should be treasured.
UT’s 12 commitments for the Class of 2014 have it ranked anywhere from second to fifth nationally. That puts the Vols in the same neighborhood with Texas, Florida, LSU, Alabama, Florida State, and Notre Dame. That’s success by association.
You can’t win a game in May. You can gain momentum, though.
Tennessee’s forward progress is magnified by the previous direction of the program. It wasn’t at a standstill when Jones assumed command. It was in reverse.
You might believe all this momentum will come to an horrific halt in Eugene, Ore., in September when Tennessee plays the first of five opponents capable of being ranked in preseason top 10s.
But losing by an outrageous margin to a top-10 team is no longer a disaster of biblical proportions for the Vols. It has become the norm.
No matter how convinced you are Jones will change that, you can’t expect him to change it in 2013. It will take more recruiting classes like the one he’s assembling this year. It will take more recruits who believe they can make a difference.
As well as Jones is selling the program, he isn’t overselling. “Brick by brick,” hardly implies overnight success.
Fans along the caravan should be as attune to that cautionary reminder as they are Jones’ enthusiasm. If so, they are thinking ahead to Teams 119 and 120.