Throughout last season--especially in the miserable stretch from late October through mid-November--Butch Jones kept harping on how he needed to change the culture at Tennessee. This is not surprising. After all, when's the last time you saw a coach take over an unsuccessful team without harping on changing the culture? It's one of the standard new coach talking points.
But standard talking points often have some basis in reality, and this particular point in this particular case has more reality than most [insert Descartes joke that no one will understand]. Readers of this blog will know that despite national perception, Derek Dooley--not Lane Kiffin--is the easy winner for most loathed former coach around these parts, and with good reason. Dooley didn't do many things right, but if we had to assign a winner for Most Wrong, it very well may be attitude. Dooley's teams had a frighteningly consistent habit of quitting when the first bad thing went against them. Examples abound, and every fan will have their own favorite example. Mine is the 2012 Florida game, a game in which Tennessee was favored, playing at home in front of a raucous crowd, and winning late in the third quarter. But Trey Burton broke off an 80-yard run, and that was all she wrote. The most galling part of this example is that the run didn't even give Florida the lead! It actually brought them within a point of the Vols, and with the PAT tied the game. Tied. In Knoxville. In a game where Tennessee had been outplaying the Gators? And what happened? Florida scored two more touchdowns in the next nine minutes and won in a laugher.
So, while "changing the culture" has become a cliche, there are few cultures that needed changing more than Tennessee's after Dooley's long-awaited dismissal. And Butch Jones knew it from day one. Since being hired to coach the Vols, Jones has been a one-man PR machine, focusing on changing the attitude of both the team and the fan base. That, along with recruiting, may be the biggest success of his 20-month tenure. But as of last year, Jones was still working. Tennessee was completely uncompetitive in a three-game stretch against Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn, despite a recent win over a South Carolina team that beat Missouri and finished ranked ahead of Alabama. And Jones knew it. Every week in his press conference, he kept talking about how he needed to change the culture, how he was working to change the culture, how important it was to change the culture, everything he could say to suggest it was a work in progress.
This year? It's not a work in progress. The team is a work in progress, but according to Jones, the culture is in place. This particular comment came a couple weeks ago in response to a team that hasn't had one player come late to a meeting, but--while this team, like every team, has had some off practices--Jones has consistently praised the Vols' work ethic in every area.
What does that mean? You can see and feel a difference in attitude, but it's not as tangible as a difference in talent. This Tennessee team will be more talented than the last Tennessee team. Everyone knows that, friend or foe, and we know roughly what to expect. We might not know enough to put a win total on it, but we can expect faster and stronger players who make more eye-catching plays. We know what talent does. This Tennessee team will be less experienced than the last Tennessee team. We know that one too. It means there will be a frustrating number of mental mistakes as players learn what is expected of them as players in the SEC and as players in Jones' particular offensive and defensive schemes.
The infusion of talent and the massive inexperience are not secrets. Tennessee apologists think the talent will take over and lead the Vols back to a bowl game, with some even predicting seven or eight wins. Tennessee rivals think the talent and inexperience will largely balance each other out, with 5-7 and 6-6 being the most likely outcomes. But the infusion of attitude is not much discussed. Which makes some sense, as attitude is intangible and difficult to quantify. But attitude took an eight-win team in 2012 and turned them into a five-win team (and yes, I am comfortable attributing a three-game swing to a losing culture. I attribute another three game swing to abysmal defensive coaching. The squandered potential on the 2012 team was astounding). If a losing culture can take an eight-win team and turn them into a five-win team, what can a winning culture do with a five-or-six-win team?
This, to me, is the most exciting question of the 2014 season. The most intriguing probably involves coaching. The schemes are better--at least on defense--but whether the coordinators are SEC-caliber is an open question. The most common questions involve talent and inexperience. But Jones has only brought in one full class. He's only just begun to mitigate the dearth of talent left in Dooley's wake. Recruiting is surely exciting, but a lot of that excitement is not ready to take the field. But there is one area where Jones has engineered a complete 180. Ask your past self who looked at the crowds against Troy and Missouri in 2012 whether Tennessee would get 40,000 fans (more, by the way, than seven BCS schools, including three bowl teams, averaged at games in 2013) to come out for a practice. Not a scrimmage, a normal practice. Coming off three straight 5-7 seasons. The excitement is palpable. Jones has changed the attitude of the fans, and if you hear him tell it, he's changed the attitude of the team as well.
It is unlikely that culture will be responsible for a three-game swing in 2014, as I have argued it was in 2012. In a conference like the SEC, it's easier to move down than to move up. But if Jones has really fixed what was one of the most glaring and persistent problems under Dooley, it will show. Somewhere, it will show. I can't say how it will affect the final record, but I am excited to find out.