Aaron Medley‘s 37-yard field goal attempt clanged off the right upright and bounced directly back into the field of play. It wasn’t the miss from inside of 40 yards. It was the surreal realization that if a kicker tried to do that exact same thing 100 times, odds are he wouldn’t be able to replicate it.
Tennessee fans know that feeling. The weird feeling of watching a train wreck and seeing some sort of poetic irony in all of the carnage. That odd feeling of having to justify your program to rival fans who haven’t sniffed the historical success of your team. And the worst feeling of all for the true college football fan: disappointment. Seeing a talented team on the field and not realizing the just rewards of such an assemblage of talent.
Tennessee’s pain is well chronicled. From the Florida games of the 1990s and 2000s to the Heisman Trophy robberies of Johnny Majors and Peyton Manning. There was the scorned jilting by Lane Kiffin and the orange pants of Derek Dooley. Coming off a loss to Vanderbilt, it’s not worth revisiting here.
But Tennessee fans have that old familiar feeling as they wake up this morning. These are the things country songs are made of.
That feeling of disappointment. Looking over the Top 25 rankings and seeing the other teams, like a kid eyeing the playground enviously, only to be held indoors from the other children because mom and dad won’t let them play outside. This is why we can’t have nice things.
A Long Time Ago, In a Season Far, Far Away
So, to recap the 2016 season. Tennessee comes in to the season returning ten of 11 starters on offense and eight of 11 starters on defense. A senior quarterback, two accomplished running backs, and three All-American candidates on the defensive side of the ball. And a veteran, accomplished special teams ensemble to complement that cast. A consensus SEC East Division favorite and a solid Top 20 ranked team.
Tennessee started off 5-0 and cracked the Top 10 for the first time in a decade. More importantly, Tennessee beat Florida for the first time in eleven years. The Vols followed that up with a miraculous win at Georgia. But that’s about where the 2016 season ends.
An Inconvenient Truth: Butch Jones Status
The fact of the matter is that this is the worst possible timing for the collapse of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee.
First, the Tennessee administration is in transition. Chancellor Jimmy Cheek is stepping down and his replacement has not been identified. More importantly, Vice-Chancellor and Athletic Director Dave Hart has also announced his retirement, effective next June, and the university is in the early stages of identifying Hart’s replacement. Even if an Athletic Director were named in the coming weeks, it’s unlikely any move would be made until — at a minimum — both a new Chancellor and the new A.D. were in office.
Keeping on the theme of transition, one of the hallmarks of the Tennessee athletic department’s decade of darkness has been coaching transition. The football program went through four coaches in six years during the Fulmer–Kiffin–Dooley–Jones rotation. The basketball program did one better, going through the four-coach dance with Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, Donnie Tyndall, and Rick Barnes in only five years. Tennessee baseball has also had drama within the coaching ranks.
With the effects of the previous coaching changeover, coupled with the administrative transition, stability is the Jones’ biggest asset.
Then there’s money. Jones is under contract through February 28th, 2021. His current buyout is approximately $2 million per year remaining on his contract. As of this writing, that equals about $8,509,590 in buyout owed to Jones if the university decides to go another direction. While Hart has solidified the school’s financial footing, Tennessee still doesn’t have a ton of money to throw around. And that’s a lot of money to start over.
But here’s the real reason why Jones isn’t going anywhere: there’s no one locked up to follow Jones as Tennessee’s head coach. Who will Tennessee go after? Bobby Petrino, who just led Louisville to a late-season beat down against Houston and lost to Kentucky at home? Petrino also brings unsavory baggage with him. Les Miles? Miles did less with more better than any coach maybe in history at LSU. Miles’ LSU players litter NFL rosters. If you think Jones has disappointed with the roster he’s built, go look at what Miles’ record in Baton Rouge. P.J. Fleck? Brian Kelly? Chad Morris? Willie Taggart? All come with questions and, for the exception of Kelly, are unproven at the highest levels. These are the same questions and concerns that accompanied Jones to Rocky Top four years ago.
Could Jones Leave on His Terms?
The only possibility of Jones leaving? Of his own accord. Jones has sounded unhappy over the last few weeks. He again expressed angst following the Vanderbilt loss about a lack of understanding with how far this program has come under his watch. He’s right, of course, but the constant questioning and displeasure in the fan base looks like it is taking a toll.
Jones’ buyout on his contract is currently $3 million. Next year (after March 1st), it becomes $2 million. Would Houston be willing to pay that to get Jones? Brian Kelly is also rumored to be unhappy in South Bend. And Notre Dame has money to burn. Could Jones follow Kelly at a third different school? Jones being courted and leaving on his own for Notre Dame seems the most likely scenario for change until the end of the 2017.
The Case For and Against Jones
All this assumes that the Jones era at Tennessee is starting to collapse. That’s not a certainty, however.
Upgrading the Program
You cannot deny that Jones has righted the Tennessee ship from where it was at the end of Derek Dooley‘s tenure. The roster was embarrassingly bare of talent. Jones has built a roster that can compete with any team in the nation.
Jones has also improved the off-the-field environment at Tennessee. Players are held accountable for disciplinary actions. Those infractions are becoming less and less. And Tennessee’s APR has improved every semester that Jones has been in Knoxville.
And for 2016, injuries have decimated Tennessee. Fans might not want to hear it, but Tennessee has lost over 40 starts just on the defense to injuries. That includes the majority of the season for All-American candidates Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The late season loss of Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie, and Danny O’Brien (non-injury) was a crippling blow to a defense already short at linebacker. The offense fared a little better, but guessing the weekly starting offensive line configuration was like playing office bingo.
To provide a fair evaluation of Jones, you have to consider the injuries.
Forward Progress Halted
But these things don’t acquit Jones of the on-the-field results. All of the forward progress the program has made in the last four years was halted last night. No matter what Tennessee does in late December, next season will be a cold start.
Tennessee has floundered the SEC East Championship the past two seasons. An inexplicable loss to Florida last season kept the Vols out of Atlanta. This season, Tennessee started 5-0, including wins against division powers Florida and Georgia. Tennessee would fumble a two-game lead against Florida with inexcusable losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
On top of the on-field issues, a large number of players have left the program under Jones’ leadership. Most notably was the departure of Preston Williams and Jalen Hurd in the middle of this season. Hurd was a few hundred yards from becoming the all-time leading rusher in Tennessee history.
Now, any rumor, report, or story out of Knoxville that is even remotely not-positive will be scrutinized by an engaged and active fan base.
The Way Forward
But it doesn’t really matter. For the reasons listed above, Butch Jones isn’t going anywhere for at least the next twelve months.
The off-season narrative will center around Butch Jones’ status as head coach. And there will be more questions than answers. Tennessee will lose its team leadership, specifically Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cam Sutton. And there’s a high likelihood that Alvin Kamara and Derek Barnett won’t be back as well. Other than those players, the Vols will only lose three other starters, however. There’s likely to be a quarterback controversy as well between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano. And you can expect a handful of transfers as well.
If Jones can finally win the east with a less publicized line-up, he can regain his solid footing.
And you can certainly expect some movement in the coaching ranks as well. Tennessee fans love to hate offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, in spite of some impressive results. DeBord, along with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, is expected to be in the running for the Delaware head coaching job. Shoop’s defense has been disappointing in the second half of the season. And with Penn State threatening the CFP and Vanderbilt putting 45 points on the Vols, the Shoop hiring doesn’t look as good now as it did ten months ago. If Jones is serious about holding assistants accountable, we could see movement of Don Mahoney (offensive Line), Willie Martinez (secondary), and Tommy Thigpen (linebackers). And Jones has to look at the Strength and Conditioning program.
We’ll get a glimpse of impact of Tennessee’s stumbles in February with National Signing Day. Jones has built his reputation on recruiting talent to Knoxville. Will the loss of momentum affect his ability to top-tier talent into the program?
Add in all of the coaches movement during the off-season, and you will hear Jones name mentioned here and there by agents to increase their clients’ leverages with schools. That’ll contribute to the growing fissure between the caretaker and his fan base.
The New Men in Town
Lastly, once the new administration is in place in Knoxville, Butch Jones will be an inherited hire. Jones and the new administration will only have a few months before the 2017 season kicks off.
If those relationships don’t flourish or next season sees a regression in win totals, Tennessee could be facing a major decision exactly one year from today.
It’ll be something all too familiar for Tennessee fans. Just another train wreck with poetic irony.