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On Minimizing Success, Champions of Life, and Butch Jones

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Tennessee and its head coach can lift up their genuine progress while acknowledging their genuine disappointment.

NCAA Football: Tennessee Tech at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A four-minute question and answer I thought were of particular interest in Butch Jones’ media opportunity today:

In response to a question about his "Champions of Life" language earlier this week, part of Jones’ answer included this:

"I’m still amazed that when I talk to people, and I bring up the success of this program in the last four years, it’s minimized. And I don’t understand how it can be minimized. From the graduation to being 14-3 (in the last 17 games) I don’t know...I don’t get it. And there’s so many great stories...now, coaches around the country get it, because they want to come visit here already and come visit during bowl prep and see everything that’s going on, and we have something very special here."

He want on to say the Vols still had a long way to go, that Vanderbilt would be a challenge, and that he takes responsibility first and foremost for the state of the program.

In the last week of August we wrapped up our 10 Questions for 2016 series by asking if Butch Jones and Team 120 could finish what they started, opening that piece with this idea:

In three seasons, Butch Jones’ greatest crime as Tennessee’s coach has been making good progress while flirting so heavily with great progress that good progress can sometimes feel left out.

One game from the end of his fourth regular season, it seems this idea is alive and well.

In every season Butch Jones’ Vols have made real and tangible progress. And in every season Butch Jones’ Vols have narrowly missed something more:

  • 2013 (5-7): Beat #11 South Carolina for the program’s first ranked win since 2009. Lost to Vanderbilt 14-10 to miss bowl eligibility.
  • 2014 (7-6): Beat South Carolina in overtime after a furious rally, starting a 3-1 November to earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010, then blew out Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl for the first bowl victory since 2007. Lost a 9-0 fourth quarter lead to fall to Florida 10-9.
  • 2015 (9-4): Beat #19 Georgia for the first time since 2009 and throttled #13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl 45-6, the largest bowl victory in school history and largest margin of victory over a ranked foe since 1990. Finished the year ranked for the first time since 2007. Lost a 17-0 lead on Oklahoma, a 14-0 lead on Arkansas, and a 27-14 fourth quarter lead on Florida, the latter costing the Vols the SEC East.
  • 2016: (8-3): Beat #19 Florida for the first time since 2004. Beat #25 Georgia in Athens for the first time since 2006. Played in and won the highest-attended football game ever against Virginia Tech at Bristol. Lost as a two-touchdown favorite at South Carolina, costing the Vols the SEC East and an outside shot at the College Football Playoff.

Every year the wins have gotten bigger, from a ranked team to a bowl game to the Georgia streak to the Florida streak. Bigger wins have raised the stakes, which have in turn made the losses more costly, from bowl eligibility to the Florida streak to the division to the division and possibly more.

Consider the thin line between outright success and outright failure.

If a fourth down stop doesn’t get overturned against Vanderbilt in 2013. If Justin Worley doesn’t get stripped sacked on 2nd-and-5 at the 30 on the next-to-last play of the third quarter against Florida in 2014. If the Vols stop the Gators on any one of five fourth downs in 2015. If Carlin Fils-aime doesn’t have to come in the game at South Carolina leading to the botched exchange fourth quarter fumble.

Butch Jones and the Vols could be that close to having four seasons we would have called outright successes: bowl eligibility in year one, three straight wins over Florida, two straight division titles, and hoping for one more upset right now for the Vols to play Alabama in Atlanta for a shot to make the playoff.

On the other hand, if Marquez North doesn’t make an insane one-handed catch against South Carolina in 2013. If the Vols don’t come back from down 14 with five minutes to play at South Carolina in 2014. If Josh Dobbs and Josh Smith can’t convert 4th-and-8 down 24-3 against Georgia in 2015. If the Vols don’t hit a hail mary in Athens this fall.

Butch Jones and the Vols could be that close to having four seasons we would have called outright disappointments: 4-8, 5-7, 7-5 and perhaps zero ranked wins, and who knows if Jones even makes it to year four to be 7-4 right now.

That’s how thin the margin of error can be. And it’s incredibly important to remember that’s not just Tennessee: that’s every team in the SEC not named Alabama.

The Crimson Tide are currently 37-3 (93%) in the last three years. Georgia has the next best winning percentage at 27-10 (73%) - an average of more than three losses per year - and fired their coach at the end of last year. After that there are seven SEC teams who have won between 62-69% of their games in the last three years:

Team W L PCT
Florida 25 11 .694
LSU 23 12 .657
Ole Miss 24 13 .648
Tennessee 24 13 .648
Texas A&M 24 13 .648
Auburn 23 14 .621
Mississippi State 23 14 .621

This is the current state of affairs in this league: Alabama at the top, and the next eight best teams just beating each other up. It shows up most clearly in the standings this year, but it’s been true in general for several seasons now.

If you compare Butch Jones to Phillip Fulmer in the 90’s, he’s never going to win and you’re never going to be happy. This isn’t that SEC. If you compare Butch Jones to his non-Alabama contemporaries in the SEC, he has the Vols in the same crowded field as everyone else. You can’t stay in the crowded field forever without rising above it - ask Mark Richt and Les Miles - but the Vols just got back to it for the first time in a decade.

This is the progress Jones lifts up, and rightfully so. And he is also right to lift up the off-the-field progress the Vols have made, from APR rates to efforts to improve the culture on campus to taking his players to Chattanooga today to help in any way in the midst of an unspeakable tragedy at Woodmore Elementary.

I’m proud we have a coach who leads in these ways. And I’m proud he seems truly interested in his players becoming champions of life.

The only problem with this message was its timing, on the heels of disappointment in losing the SEC East to the Gators. I would submit that part of learning to be a champion at life is being okay with acknowledging those disappointments.

But disappointment is far from the only thing to acknowledge with this season, this team, or this coach.

You don’t ever want to be the fanbase that’s not good at celebrating success. This is especially true for Tennessee, 40-47 from 2008-14 and on our fourth men’s basketball coach since 2011. We can celebrate this program’s clear and tangible progress. And we can lament the missed opportunities for even more progress. We shouldn’t minimize success, we should maximize it. But we also shouldn’t pretend disappointment isn’t real. We can do both. We can be both.

And I would also again submit that this season isn’t over, and amidst such a thin margin there’s plenty of room left on both sides. The Vols could lose at Vanderbilt and lose a group-of-six bowl game. The Vols could beat Vanderbilt and win the Sugar Bowl. You think these games don’t matter?

Losing the East is disappointing, but injuries almost certainly already cost the Vols a prize any bigger than Atlanta, no matter how much fun it would have been to be in the playoff race these last few weeks. I’d love the chance to see if injuries cost us or not against the Big 12 Champions in New Orleans. But if this team can earn a Sugar Bowl bid, the program’s first BCS/New Year’s Six bid of this century? This would be the most tangible sign of progress yet.

I’m thankful for this wild and crazy year. And it ain’t over yet.

Go Vols.