Butch, Make Me More than Half-Believe

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

Why I don't believe in Butch Jones but sincerely hope he makes me.

Every time winter rolls around, I end up listening more and more to The Weakerthans. Their frontman is one of the best I've seen at turning the mundane into poetry, and there's something about a bunch of Canadians that seems appropriate when the weather starts to get cold. Their first album has a song called "Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist," and I've felt for weeks that its closing would sum up my thoughts about the direction of Tennessee football.

I swear I way more than half believe it when I say that somewhere love and justice shine, cynicism falls asleep, tyranny talks to itself, sappy slogans all come true, and we forget to feed our fear.

It sings to me of trying to make yourself believe in something, even when you have your doubts. Of always trying to keep in mind the goals, what change we hope to effect, in the world or with our team. But I hear it as bitterly sarcastic. Someone who wants to believe bemoaning that he just can't. He knows the goals but sees only the obstacles to their fulfillment. The best he can muster is an insincere claim to half-belief.

No matter who Tennessee hired, I would've thought like this. The degree of bitterness and sarcasm would've been different, but I would've been talking myself out of my doubts. Even Jon Gruden. After all, he was famous for preferring veterans in the pros--if he had been hired, I would've been talking myself into reasons to believe that a reported disdain for rookies wouldn't extend to a disdain for college kids. I would've been telling myself that the West Coast offense would work with only 20 hours a week of practice. I would've been convincing myself that he would be the guy to take Tennessee back to the top.

But some guys are easier to believe in than others. With Jon Gruden, I could've talked myself into full conviction. And lest you think my expectations are unrealistic, I could've talked myself into full conviction for Charlie Strong. I could've talked myself into full conviction for Butch Davis. I probably could've talked myself into full conviction for Mike MacIntyre.

But I'm sorry, Butch, I can't talk myself into full conviction for you. And any claim that I can talk myself into more than half-conviction will be bitter and half-hearted. You're going to have to help me out. You're going to have to show me something to believe in.

There are reasons for belief, but they just aren't strong enough. You seem well respected among the national media. They cover your sport for a living and most of them know a lot more about it than I do. They think you're a good candidate for a job like Tennessee. They've been saying it since last summer. But you know who else was an up-and-comer that everybody seemed to respect? That everybody who knew him tried to tell us would succeed beyond our hopes at Tennessee? Derek Dooley. So forgive me if that's not enough right now. And don't even try to sell me your 2-1 record against Charlie Strong. A team covered with Brian Kelly's fingerprints should always beat a team covered with Steve Kragthorpe's.

I know your record is sparkling. You've won at least a share of a conference title in four of the five years you've been a head coach. And that's great. But one of my biggest considerations when evaluating coaching candidates is trajectory. Are you improving on what you inherited? I know you inherited 12-0 at Cincinnati, so expecting improvement is hard. So I want to know that you've at least been sustaining what you inherited. And, Butch, it looks to me like you aren't. In Brian Kelly's last two years at Cincinnati, he went 22-2 in the regular season and 13-1 in Big East play. You took that team and went 4-8, 2-5 in Big East play. And I know you had plenty of injuries, but I've seen injuries used as an excuse too often lately. And even if they are a good excuse, you should've bounced back the next two years, right? Well, you've turned in a pair of 9-3 seasons, 5-2 in Big East play. You've had three years, and you haven't been able to match the lesser of the two seasons before you took over. You took a team that was literally one second from the national title game, and two years later you had them losing badly to possibly the worst Tennessee team of my lifetime.

I have no idea whether you can recruit. You haven't coached in the SEC before, I'm not aware of any connections you have in the Southeast, and you don't have a track record of pulling top 25 classes. Well at Tennessee, recruiting is a big deal. If you're not pulling top ten classes year in and year out, you're falling behind the rest of the conference. If you can recruit, show me. It'll be one of the first things you can do to make me believe in you. Because if you can get talent here, that's the first step to winning here.

I know I could've said the same things about other coaches. Kevin Sumlin was a well-regarded up-and-comer by the media, and his chops as an offensive coordinator were undeniable, but I was skeptical because he had never done anything but build on the work of Art Briles and an inherited star quarterback in Case Keenum. He has proven me dead wrong this year, and I sincerely hope you do the same. But Kevin Sumlin is the exception, not the rule. What I expect to see from you are a lot of 8-5 seasons with the occasional 5-7 or 10-3 thrown in. You won't crash and burn horribly, but I can't see you winning championships over coaches like Spurrier and Saban and over talent like they have Florida and LSU. And that's well below our standards at Tennessee.

That's not to say I won't support you. I will not lie to myself or my fellow fans and say that I believe in you, but once I have said my piece on concerns about your resume, I will hope as hard as anybody for your success. I won't be that fan who takes to the Internet and the call-in shows demanding your firing before you've coached a game, or after your first loss. No, you'll have my support until at least the end of your second year and most likely the end of your third year. [There are three conditions under which this promise is null and void: you fire Jay Graham, you lose to Kentucky, or you lose to Vanderbilt. Those things don't happen at Tennessee.] And after that third year, when I look back on your tenure and judge whether you're leading Tennessee back to prominence or just to the middle of the pack, it is my sincerest hope that you will have proven all of my doubts foolish. You look like a man who sees the potential in Tennessee that we see in Tennessee, and I want you to realize that potential. I want to believe in you, Butch. We all do. Make me. Make us.

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