The famous modern American general David Petraeus was known for asking the quasi-riddle, quasi-rhetorical question “Tell me how this ends?” It was his way of working through a dialogue with someone on a complex or uncomfortable conversation. After Tennessee‘s most recent disaster in Gainesville last Saturday, many fans are left thinking that very same thought about head coach Butch Jones. And Athletic Director John Currie most certainly is looking at exit strategies for Head Coach Butch Jones.
The Beginning of the End for Butch Jones at Tennessee
There’s no doubt that emotions were raw immediately after Saturday’s loss. But as the emotion dissipated, any objective Tennessee fan could sense that this was it. This was the beginning of the end of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee.
How Far He’s Brought Them
How you see Butch Jones depends upon the direction in which you’re looking. Looking backwards, Jones appears to be a coach moving a program forward. Jones has led Tennessee to the program’s first back-to-back nine win seasons in a decade. It’s also been a decade since Tennessee has had two consecutive seasons of a .500 or better SEC record. Under Jones, the Vols have won three consecutive bowl games. Tennessee hadn’t won consecutive bowl games since the end of the 1996 season. And Jones has improved the character and image of the team as well.
There’s no argument. Butch Jones brought Tennessee back from a decade of darkness. The late-Fulmer/Kiffin/Dooley era was the worst era in the history of Tennessee football. Literally. Since the birth of Tennessee football in 1891, there had never been five seasons of sub-.500 football in a six year span until 2008-2013.
How Far They’ve Yet To Go
But if you look forward, it’s becoming painfully clear that Jones isn’t the long-term solution in Knoxville. The past three seasons have provided plenty of opportunities for Tennessee. Their primary East Division rivals, Florida and Georgia, haven’t been as good as they are historically. Tennessee has been arguably the most talented team in the East during this three year span. In that span, Tennessee has stumbled it’s way out of several opportunities: (WARNING: The following content may cause serious emotional flashbacks)
- Florida Fiascos. The Vols have found ways to lose three out of the last four games against Florida. In 2014, Tennessee failed to score a touchdown, gave up ten unanswered fourth quarter points, including the game-winning field goal after the play-clock expired, and threw an interception to seal the game. In the 2015 game, the Vols gave up another fourth quarter lead on a fourth-and-fourteen conversion. Tennessee then missed a 55-yard field goal as time expired. This came after the decision not to go for a two point conversion at 26-20. And, of course, on Saturday the Vols gave up a 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
- Late Bombs. This came after Tennessee gave up a 51-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining to Georgia in 2016. That led to the famous Dobbs-Nail Hail Mary a few moments later. But in the previous season, Georgia receiver Reggie Davis dropped a 56-yard pass in the end zone that would have tied that game as well. Tennessee’s proclivity to giving up late game bombs is statistically unfathomable.
- Late Game Worries. In 2015, Tennessee gave up fourth quarter leads in each of their four losses. Two of those losses were to eventual College Football Playoff teams. In two of those losses, Tennessee gave up critical fourth down conversions late in the fourth quarter.
- Losing the State. Tennessee has lost to in-state rival Vanderbilt twice in the last four seasons. The last head coach to lose to Vanderbilt twice in a single coaching stint? M.B. Banks in 1925.
- Flat Games. Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina last season cost them the SEC East Division crown. South Carolina was playing with an 18-year old true freshman quarterback that left high school early to enroll in Columbia.
- Injuries. Speaking of statistically unfathomable, Tennessee’s injury situation over the past two seasons is mind-boggling. Tennessee lost over 50 game starts to injury last season. And the Vols have already lost Jauan Jennings, Darren Kirkland, Jr., Cortez McDowell, and Todd Kelly, Jr. to injuries this season.
It is abundantly clear that the opportunity for Tennessee to control the East has presented itself over the last three years. And it is as abundantly clear that Tennessee has let that opportunity slip away.
While the Tennessee program is far better than it was at the end of the Dooley era, it’s also no closer to an East Division title.
Tell Me How This Ends
So if the Butch Jones era at Tennessee is ending, how does it play out? John Currie has proven to be a pleasant surprise for most Volunteer fans. He will have to navigate this closing chapter delicately to ensure the progress made under Jones doesn’t fall apart.
The Remainder of 2017
With the quality of play displayed on the field on Saturday, coupled with the aforementioned injuries, it’s hard to see Tennessee topping seven wins for this campaign. Tennessee will be decided underdogs to Georgia, Alabama, and LSU. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are both playing better. South Carolina is better than last season. Even if Tennessee upsets Georgia or LSU, they’ll still have to fight to win two of three against the Wildcats, Commodores, and Gamecocks. The only locked-in wins for the rest of the season are Massachusetts, Southern Mississippi, and Missouri. If the Vols go 7-5, it will be the first regression in the Jones era. It’ll be tough for the fans to stomach.
As of today, the buyout on Butch Jones’ contract sits at about $7.8 million dollars. While that’s not a hefty sum, it also doesn’t include his assistant coaches. At the end of this season, the buyout will be around $7 million. That’s not as high as Kevin Sumlin, but it’s not chump-change for a program that’s just now getting back on solid fiscal ground. With the assistant coaches included, the expectant total cost of termination would be just short of $10 million dollars in December of 2017. It will be $2 million less at the end of next season. That would be much more palatable to the school administration.
Currie hasn’t yet signed an extension for Jones. That might turn out to be a smart move for the new A.D. While showing support, he isn’t yet tied to Jones. Jones’ current contract is through the 2020 season, so talk of recruiting taking a hit because of a lack of an extension are probably quite overblown. Currie can hold off this offseason, or get creative with length and buyout restructuring, and make 2018 a do-or-die season for Jones. It would give Currie tremendous flexibility and put him in almost total control of the situation. It might also serve another purpose.
A Mutual Parting of Ways?
If Tennessee finishes with seven or eight wins and Currie balks at an extension this winter, that might prompt Jones and his uber-agent Jimmy Sexton to start exploring other options. Maybe Currie even lets Sexton know that Tennessee waives the coach’s buyout clause to entice another school to hire Jones.
Let’s fast forward to the end of 2018. Maybe Notre Dame has finally fired Brian Kelly or Jim Harbaugh has had enough at Michigan and leaves for Indianapolis of the NFL. Does another big name school come in and “poach” the recruiting superstar Jones away from Tennessee? That could be the best possible scenario for both parties. It saves Tennessee the money and the optics of turmoil, and it also allows Jones to save face. Say what you will about Jones, but he has certainly put forth a tremendous amount of energy towards the Tennessee program. And his reclamation job at Tennessee is impressive.
That’s the scenario that’s best for Tennessee. Another top tier Power Five school calls Jones and he decides to leave either after this season or 2018.
So if that’s how it goes, who comes in next?
Don’t Even Bother Calling
First, let’s eliminate two names. Les Miles did less with more at LSU than maybe any coach ever. He’s funny and all, but would be more of the same. And Chip Kelly doesn’t get a call either. Kelly has lost the locker room with two NFL teams. With so much coaching talent out there, you don’t need a guy with his baggage.
If your John Currie, you’ve got to make two calls to gauge interest. Bob Stoops and Jon Gruden. With Stoops, there is a big question mark of whether or not he’s interested in coming back. If he does get that itch, Tennessee would be a great landing spot. He wouldn’t have to worry about playing Oklahoma, it’s another big time school, and he’ll be close to Ohio and his brother Mark at Kentucky. For Gruden, he has family ties to the school and the ESPN brand is suffering right now. No one really knows if either of these guys are interested, but you’ve got to reach out.
The Realistic Candidates
That leaves the realistic candidates. Would Justin Fuente leave Virginia Tech after two or three seasons? Tennessee could certainly offer more. And the Hokies have a built-in coach-in-waiting with Bud Foster. Is Mike Norvell ready for a top program. Would Currie reach into Texas and take rising coaching star Frank Wilson from UTSA? Or would that seem too much like the Hamilton Dooley hire?
And of course there’s USC‘s offensive coordinator, Tee Martin. At the end of the 2018 season, he’ll have three seasons at the helm of the Trojans offense. Maybe he’ll have a Pac-12 Championship. Maybe even a CFP appearance. He’ll have no head coaching experience, however. But the temptation has to be there.
This Is The End, My Friend
None of this is to say that Butch Jones should get fired. He obviously has recruiting acumen and is a decent coach. There’s been more than his fair share of bad breaks. The injuries, some grotesque officiating, an unforgiving schedule, and a decidedly negative tone about town.
But this is a tough business and tough sport in a tough world. We’re in year five and the story of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee is clear. It was a rebuilding period. Jones re-stacked the team with talent and nursed the program back to health. Nothing more, and nothing less.
And that is how this story is likely to end.