DESTIN, Fla. — Butch Jones attended his first SEC meeting Tuesday afternoon. But the Tennessee football coach didn’t sound like an SEC rookie.
He sounded like all the veteran coaches who have been around the conference block multiple times and know the advantages and challenges that entails.
“The SEC is different in all facets,” Jones said in the corridor of a resort hotel where the conference conducts its spring meetings. “That’s what makes it the best conference in the country.”
SEC commissioner Mike Slive couldn’t have put it better.
“Everything is at a higher level (in the SEC),” he said. “If a young man wants to compete against the best, why would he not want to play in the SEC?
“Every day, it’s fourth-and-1 for the national championship. It doesn’t matter if it’s recruiting, practice, a caravan. Everything is at an all-time level.”
Everything includes the fan base, some of which always seems within earshot at the Sandestin Hilton.
As Jones finished his media get-together, he met the Jason Darnell family from Maryville. They were in the area and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet Tennessee’s first-year coach.
And Jones seemed as excited about meeting them. As he posed for pictures with the Tennessee family, he no longer reminded you of an SEC veteran.
Most fans probably wouldn’t approach the average SEC coach at this venue. But Jones always looks so accessible, almost as if he’s waiting for fans to drop by.
He talked about giving autographs to UT fans in the middle of his breakfast earlier Tuesday. He seemed to enjoy the interruption.
After all, fan passion is one of the items on his sales list to recruits. The impromptu autograph session at breakfast was just another reminder why he found this job so appealing.
He’s getting a feel for the competition, too. He might not have coached a game in the SEC, but opposing fans recognize him.
“Roll Tide,” said one.
“War Eagle,” said another.
Think he got any of that from Big East fans when he was coaching Cincinnati?
“In the SEC, there’s no offseason,” said Jones, again sounding like a league vet.
Not all of Jones’ SEC education has come in a public forum. There also has been a late-night course in the basement of his home.
“I have video in my basement,” he said. “I might get home at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. I’ll watch a quarter of (an SEC opponent’s game).”
It doesn’t take that long for a coach to figure out that — for all the similarities between SEC programs — the talent level can be drastically different from top to bottom.
After three consecutive losing seasons, Tennessee is closer to the bottom.
One preseason publication ranks the Vols fifth in the SEC East and 10th in the conference. Others might not be that optimistic about the upcoming season.
Jones’ plight is exacerbated by the competition.
“Not only are you trying to turn a program around,” he said. “You’re trying to do it in the most competitive conference in the country.
“You have to pull your head up and grind it every day.”
But even as he grinds away, he’s not oblivious to the passionate support group behind him.
So he poses for pictures and signs autographs. And he does it with a smile.