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VOL. 131 | NO. 226 | Friday, November 11, 2016

Six-Point Plan to Help Vols Coach Stick Around Longer

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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On that day in December 2012 when Butch Jones was introduced as Tennessee’s head football coach, he told Vol Nation that he had a template for fixing everything.

Butch Jones began his fourth season as Tennessee coach with a 5-0 mark, including wins vs. Florida and Kentucky. His team then lost consecutive games to Texas A&M, Alabama and South Carolina.

(Photo by Jerry Denham)

He said: “The plan is infallible if the players buy in.”

No, it’s not.

There is no such thing as an infallible plan. There are too many variables, both inside and outside the operation. As the CEO of any organization, whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a major college football program, you must be flexible and able to think on your feet.

In short, you may arrive with all the answers. But how do you handle things when they change the questions? And in the SEC, they always change the questions.

Moving forward, that is Jones’ biggest challenge as UT’s football coach. While it is imperative to have an overall philosophy and certain core values, you must evolve and adjust. The plan of 2013 must be updated and recast for the challenges of 2016 and beyond.

Right about here, let’s be clear on one thing: Jones isn’t going anywhere, at least in the near term. All the furor in the aftermath of the South Carolina debacle smacks of a fan base that bought into all the preseason hype. 

While it is fair to say the Vols have underperformed, this is far from the utter disaster some have suggested.

Likewise, the curious case of Jalen Hurd must be kept in perspective. Yes, when a player of Hurd’s talent and production leaves the team eight games into the season, it is an indication that something is wrong. But from where I sit, the problem lies more with the player than the coach.

For what it’s worth, there’s a strong chance UT will represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship Game. 

While I’m not sure the Vols really want anything to do with a rematch with Alabama, going to Atlanta for the first time since 2007 would be a definite positive – even if the SEC East is at a historically low point.

Even so, there are some things Jones needs to fix in order to avoid any further erosion of his position, especially with a new athletics director and chancellor coming online in the next few months.

Consider it a six-step recovery program. You can thank me later, coach.

1. Update the offense

Mike DeBord is an easy target for criticism because of all the turnovers and poor offensive performances against Alabama and South Carolina. Yes, it was a bad hire. But make no mistake: DeBord is running Jones’ offense.

Check the tape. The 2016 offense is basically the same system the Vols ran in 2013-14 under Mike Bajakian, who had been offensive coordinator for Jones in his previous head coaching stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. 

The only real difference is that Bajakian started out at UT with Justin Worley, a slow-footed quarterback who was a liability when he kept the ball on the zone-option play as opposed to Josh Dobbs.

Granted, the Vols have put up some big offensive numbers at times (684 yards against Texas A&M and 498 against Florida), but there is far too much inconsistency.

It is telling that Jones has noted the Vols are struggling against “Cover 1” defensive schemes.

“Cover 1” is man-to-man coverage on the perimeter with one safety playing deep, which allows the defense to gang up against the run. With wide receivers like Jauan Jennings and Josh Malone, there is no excuse for not exploiting that kind of coverage.

Replacing DeBord and updating the offense should be the top priority in the offseason. I’d prefer more of a pro-style system, but regardless of the scheme, something’s got to give.

2. Once you sign them, stop recruiting them

We know all is fair in love and recruiting. You can say whatever needs to be said in order to sign top talent. But once they’re in the program, stop the sell job. 

After a year in college, players don’t need to be coddled and told what they want to hear. 

3. Don’t make promises about playing time, position preferences and changes in the system that you don’t intend to keep.

They say what’s past is prelude. I assert that Phillip Fulmer’s velvet-glove treatment of players led to his undoing at UT. You can still relate to players and maintain strong relationships without crossing a line.

Another way of looking at it: Nick Saban annually signs the best recruiting classes, but do you think he spends significant time trying to make his players feel good about themselves or talking them out of transferring? Sometimes tough love is the way to go. If a player can’t handle it, point him toward the nearest door.

4. Come clean about injuries

Jones sometimes defaults to the NHL-style description – upper-body or lower-body – or clams up entirely about injuries. He says he’s doing that to protect the player. In fact, it can be a disservice to the player.

There’s nothing wrong with saying a player is on concussion protocol or that he has undergone arthroscopic knee surgery and will be out roughly a month. That cuts out the idle speculation about whether a given player is injured or might instead be on some kind of double-secret probation as may have been the case with Hurd.

In our social media world, friends or parents of injured players often break the news while the coach dances around it. That’s counterproductive.

5. Don’t put lipstick on a pig

In public settings, Jones is stuck in his world of clichés and coach-speak. That’s not going to change. But he should stop steering the conversation toward the positive when there are valid questions that need to be addressed.

When asked recently about the mediocre play of his offensive line and whether the staff would try to get sophomore quarterback Quinten Dormady more action, Jones meandered around the subjects at hand before saying:

“When we gain our next victory, it’ll be three straight years that we become bowl eligible. That’s the first time since 2002 …”

Actually, it is the first time since 1989 when the Vols began a streak of 16 consecutive bowl appearances. Beyond that, it didn’t address the offensive line or Dormady.

In a way, it was reminiscent of Jones’ first couple of years at UT. Back then, we grew to expect an ugly loss to be followed in a day or so by the announcement of a commitment from a big-deal recruit. Working with his preferred contacts in the media, Jones would try to attach a silver lining to any dark cloud.

Four years in, fans are getting tired of it. At this point in his rebuilding of the UT program, just getting eligible for a bowl is not something to be celebrated.

6. Stop sparring with the media when it’s not merited

This is a minor thing but it needs to be addressed. Press conferences are a key conduit for fans to learn what is going on inside the program.

You can control the message without going all Bill Belichick here. He’s won four Super Bowls. You’ve won the TaxSlayer and Outback Bowls.

Example: During the press conference in which where Hurd’s transfer was announced, Jones suggested it was “a great day for y’all” because the media was in position to write and talk about the turmoil. 

It was a foolish, unnecessary thing to say, and it smacks of a coach with a thin skin. Let it go. Like you say, Butch, click and clear.

David Climer can be reached at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer

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