Give us a hug! No? Well, maybe later. - Jonathan Ernst
The Butch Jones Era begins with chaos in Knoxville. How do we move forward from here?
The title comes from a passage you've heard at weddings: 1 Corinthians 13. It's what love does.
It's used at weddings because it's romantic, but the original context is a man writing to a group of people. Telling them they are one body with many parts. That we suffer together, and we rejoice together.
The kind of love Paul describes here is, in my experience, rare but available. We have it in us to live this way but so often we choose not to. And so a significant percentage of the wedding days where the truth of this love is spoken eventually turn cold. Families cease to be family. And all of the ways in which we are more connected to each other than ever do not directly correlate to better relationships than ever.
It's strange to say, though less so on a blog you're reading because on some level you probably understand, but one of the most reliable places to find this kind of love - active, powerful, and unconditional - is the relationship between a man and his team/woman and her team.
I love Tennessee. Chances are so do you if you're reading a blog about them, unless you came to see the train wreck today, in which case this isn't your post. I was born in Knoxville to parents who loved the Vols. I've been doing this my whole life. And you don't have to have the same story to love the Vols. That's the beauty of it. We're all in this together, one body with many parts, sharing in suffering and sharing in rejoicing if we still remember how to do it right.
This is why you only get one favorite team in any sport. Because they're your team. Because you will always get out of this what you put into it. Because if you do it long enough, your team will win...and your team will lose.
I've mentioned before that what's happening at Tennessee right now is particularly hard for my generation. I'm 31 years old; the Vols were good for literally as long as I had watched them until five years ago. We haven't known anything else, and you'd better believe we're learning it the hard way now.
I care about the Vols more than any of my other teams, but I also know what it's like to be a Celtics fan between Kevin McHale and Kevin Garnett. I know what it's like to love the Braves and watch them turn into the Cubs every October that isn't 1995. And many of us know what it's like to be a Tennessee Basketball fan under Wade Houston, Kevin O'Neill, Jerry Green, and Buzz Peterson.
If you do this long enough, you get the full experience. And it's the experience - not the wins - you come back for. That's what being a true fan is all about.
There's a reason a significant percentage of those wearing crimson in East Tennessee right now were wearing orange five years ago. Business is always good at the bandwagon store. Winning always helps. But that ain't the real thing. That's not love.
Love bears all things. It believes all things the way even the hardest of UT fans will start talking themselves into this hire somewhere between now and August. It hopes all things even when that hope has hurt us these last five years, because hope is dangerously beautiful. And it endures all things. And we are getting very good at that one.
I'll tell you what else love does. It cares. And as such, it gets angry when things appear not to go the way they should have.
At the moment some people are angry and/or upset. And I'm not here to tell you to be otherwise right now. I won't pretend that I wasn't on this podcast 36 hours ago joining Brad and Jay in agreement that Butch Jones wasn't the best choice. I won't pretend that this poll from 36 hours ago doesn't have Butch Jones with fewer votes than any other option. That's the truth.
Here's part of the problem, I think. Tennessee is 28-34 in the last five years, and the best of those years was 7-6. And so we made a hire that a program that's 28-34 in the last five years should be proud of. Butch Jones is 50-27 in six years. He's not Derek Dooley 2.0, because he's been a head coach twice as long with thrice as many wins. He's a coach that programs who've had similar runs over the last five years - Kentucky (27-36), Purdue (27-34) - wanted as their coach. On wins and losses, Butch Jones is a step up for any program that has suffered that much over that many years.
We're that program. But we're also Tennessee.
Tennessee is supposed to hire the sure thing. Because that's really what this is about, I think. We've been down for so long and told to be patient for so long, we're ready for that patience to pay off. And when it didn't pay off this fall - perhaps especially when it came so close to paying off on so many Saturdays this year - we feel like we're owed something more. And so if that patience couldn't pay off on Fall Saturdays, it had to pay off in the hire.
Plain and simple, "Get me someone who will make me feel like a winner again."
Jon Gruden was that guy, and through all the smoke we imagined fire, felt its warmth, and knew that if we got him here, everything would be okay. No price was too high.
And if you couldn't have Gruden for reasons some of us will never be convinced about, then it was Charlie Strong, long the non-Gruden choice of this blog and clearly the choice of Tennessee. Charlie Strong wasn't a sure thing, but he had very little downside, had probably the best chance to make an immediate impact in recruiting, and for many, just felt right in ways that Jimbo Fisher and Mike Gundy (who also, objectively speaking, would've been excellent hires) did not.
And then we had Strong. And then we didn't. And then 24 hours later we have Butch Jones.
And so without expanding the search another day or seeing who else was interested (especially if you're going to throw around that much money) or resetting the board, there is a percentage of our fanbase that believes we settled or panicked or both. Maybe an extended search would've still landed on Butch Jones, maybe if people had more time they could've talked themselves into him the way many were trying to do with Larry Fedora. But I do think timing is part of the issue here.
I think we have an administration that is out of touch with the fan base, though I appreciate Dave Hart's candor at both of his recent press conference appearances. I know I am tired of those who stand on the academic side - and by the way, we all want Tennessee to be a respected and progressive institution - chastising athletics like it's some side project. Here's reality: the football program isn't a special interest group at the University of Tennessee. It's not an extra-curricular activity. It's the breadwinner. More than that, the football team isn't just the university's biggest moneymaker, it is its biggest advertisement, its biggest influence, and its biggest resource. There is no greater friend to academics at Tennessee than a successful football program, because a successful football program will drop a bank on the university. And no one is asking for the football program to cheat or the academic side to sanction the breaking of NCAA rules. When football wins at Tennessee, everybody wins. And that means everybody needs to get on the same page and do what is necessary to create a successful football program.
The point is: yeah, we're upset. You want the fanbase that gets upset.
But we'll still be here.
That passage in 1 Corinthians continues with, "Love never ends." It's sometimes translated as, "Love never fails," but "ends" captures the idea more clearly.
Because sometimes love does fail. Sometimes it doesn't work out. Sometimes they don't love you back. And believe me, if loving your team = winning football games, Tennessee would be undefeated every year.
But it doesn't end. We keep coming back.
Sports fans, like few other relationships on the planet, keep coming back for their team. We will bear it, we will believe it, we will hope for it, and we will endure it, because we love it.
Love - more than faith and more than hope, which are not to be trifled with - is the greatest. You keep coming back because you love your team. Even when they frustrate you and you voice it. Even when they disappoint you for five years in a row.
That's a great fanbase. And that's Tennessee.
And if I'm Butch Jones, I'm very happy to be here. And if you give us just a little time, I think we'll return the favor.
And we'll all understand, now more than ever, that it's the Fall Saturdays that matter more than the December press conferences, because if you do it right on Fall Saturdays there are no more December press conferences. And we need to support Butch Jones because he's our coach, and we need to wait and see what he'll do once he runs thru that T.
Make no mistake: no one is a guarantee, and the risk is higher than ever. Given Tennessee's geographical position and the need to recruit regionally and nationally, the Vols have to stay relevant to stay competitive. This isn't exactly like Alabama and Notre Dame, who came through their turmoil with a BCS title game appearance on the other side. Even in their worst stretches, they had high marks. DuBose, Franchione, and Shula all had one good year at Alabama. So did Charlie Weis and Ty Willingham at Notre Dame.
Tennessee hasn't had a good year in five seasons, and though Dooley stabilized the program and rebuilt the roster, we haven't started trending in the right direction again. That becomes Butch Jones' job. It's not easy on any level, and now he's married to us, and we're a passionate and volatile bunch. He said some nice things at the press conference, but we've played this game too often too recently to buy in for just words.
But here's what else I know: Butch Jones wins one game that matters next season - one game - and it'll be more than Derek Dooley did in three years. Butch Jones goes 8-4 in his first or, probably more fairly, his second year, and it'll be the best season we've had since 2007. There is room and reason for growth here. Right now, we are more skeptical than ever. But next fall, we will also be easier to please than ever in my lifetime. There is tremendous upside in growing together. Dooley never got there because the bamboo was a lie. And I won't burden Butch Jones by placing him inside a Dooley metaphor. But this will be something new, something fresh, and something unique. He's won on Fall Saturdays everywhere he's been, and now he wants to be here. This can work.
Will it? I have no idea, and neither do you. In a perfect world you get a new coach you want to welcome with open arms. In the real world, thanks to the last five years, every Tennessee fan is crossing their arms and saying, "Show me."
But we're here. We're here. Because love never ends.