Tennessee coach Butch Jones took the podium on Monday to share his thoughts on the Vols’ placement in the Outback Bowl. Exactly three years ago he was involved in a very different type of press conference.
Jones was hired on Dec. 7, 2012. He recalls the day vividly even if he was likely exhausted. Jones had just won a Big East title with Cincinnati. He said he was up until well after 4 a.m. then barely had time to shower before informing his team that he was leaving and catching a flight to Knoxville.
“A whirlwind,” Jones said when asked that that day was like.
Jones likely had no idea just how far the Vols had slipped under his predecessors. The roster was light on talent, the Vols were struggling academically and the athletic department’s reserve fund was almost completely exhausted. Much has changed.
“It’s been a great journey,” Jones said. “This is a very, very special place. I’m proud of everything that we’re building here…I’m about 15 pounds overweight from that three-year span so I’m working on getting that back.”
“Just proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here. Proud of our players. We have a long ways to go but it’s been a very fulfilling three years and a very fast three years.”
The Vols will face No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. It’s the most prestigious bowl game Tennessee has been to since the Vols played in the Outback Bowl in 2007, beating Wisconsin 21-17.
It’s been a long path to get to this point. The most recent challenge was met when the Vols won five consecutive games to finish the season 8-4. Jones shared the bowl news with his players on Sunday evening.
“Just seeing the excitement on the kids,” he said recalling his players’ response to the announcement. “It’s been a different mentality. Our kids knew what was at stake towards the tail end of the season. They knew that they were fighting for relevance in terms of the bowl games… This is probably the most excitement I’ve seen in a football team of where we are going.”
With the success has come new challenges. The Vols will likely have to field inquiries about coaches currently on their staff. Tennessee passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni is reportedly a candidate to become the offensive coordinator at Maryland under newly hired coach D.J. Durkin.
“Zach is a very, very gifted football coach along with all of our coaches,” Jones said. “I expect people to come after our coaches. That’s what we want. That means we’re doing great things. They want the Tennessee brand. They want the Tennessee product and all the great things that are going on here in building a football team and a football program.”
Azzanni may not be the last coach to receive interest from another school. Several of Tennessee’s coaches could be coveted, especially since a number of them are highly-respected recruiters. Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez could also be a candidate if he wants to be a defensive coordinator again. He has coached with Mark Richt, who was recently hired by Miami.
“That’s a compliment,” Jones said. “It’s a compliment to what we’re building here. We have very good football coaches and even better individuals. People understand around the country what we’ve done here in a very short period of time and how far we’ve come. It garners notice across the country.”
“I speak to all our coaches all the time. If they can make themselves better in the profession and for their families (I’m) very, very supportive. But again, there’s a lot of speculation out there. Anybody can guess and be right. If there are reports and if there are tweets, stand behind what you say.”
Jones is facing a new challenge heading into his fourth season. It’s a welcome change from what he faced three years ago.