‘Cheeseburger Buddies’ Make Nice for TV

By Dave Link

Tennessee Vols football coach Butch Jones speaks during the Southeastern Conference’s annual media gathering in Hoover, Alabama. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Tennessee coach Butch Jones passed his first test of the 2017 football season Monday. He made it through SEC Media Days.

There were no new catch phrases, although Jones did allude to the team’s “D.A.T.” (Details, Accountability, Toughness) motto. But nothing close to “champions of life” or “five-star hearts.”

Jones noted the Vols’ progress in his first four years – back-to-back nine-win seasons and three consecutive bowl victories – while also noting the unfinished business, in particular getting to the SEC championship game.

Score one for Jones at 2017 Media Days.

Here’s the exchange from the SEC Network’s Dari Nowkhah, Booger McFarland and Greg McElroy after Jones appeared on set for about nine minutes and on the podium for 24 minutes in front of a roomful of media members.

“I thought what we just saw from him was the best media moments we’ve seen in five years from Butch Jones,” Nowkhah said. “I thought he was fantastic.”

“I thought he was outstanding,” McFarland added.

“I think he handled everything today beautifully,” McElroy said. “He showed humanity, he showed humility and he also showed a great understanding of the progress that needed to be made.”

McFarland said: “What’s the biggest criticism of Butch Jones? Always got slogans. You didn’t hear that. All you heard was a coach who talked about the process, talked about what he needed to get done and how he was going to do it. That’s the Butch Jones we’ve been dying to hear for the last two or three years. Today we finally heard it.”

“And he was personable!” Nowkhah added. “That’s the other thing we needed to see.”

“Yes, yes!” McFarland can be heard in the background.

Jones appeared to take the high road after McFarland’s comments earlier on Monday when the former LSU and NFL player took a couple of shots at the Vols and Jones during a radio interview with ESPN Nashville’s 102.5 “The Game.”

“I think Tennessee is going to be abysmal,” McFarland said. “I think the people at Tennessee are going to have to make a decision at the end of the year. Do you take a chance on being great, or are you satisfied with being good?”

McFarland also had a pointed answer when asked if Tennessee could eliminate the program’s culture problems that affected it in 2016.

“Well, I’d say no,” McFarland said. “I don’t think the culture problem was the issue. I think sometimes you have a coach that could get you to a certain point.

“Look at Mark Richt and Georgia. He got them to 10 wins every year, just about. He couldn’t get them over the hump. They brought in a new guy (Kirby Smart) to make a change.

“I think you’re reaching the same thing at Tennessee. Even in a year when they (Tennessee) beat Georgia and Florida, they lost to Vanderbilt. I think he’s (Butch Jones) a guy who has trouble getting his team ready to play at a certain level week in and week out.”

By 4:45 ET Monday, Jones surely had heard of McFarland’s comments, yet there was no cold war when he went to the SEC Network set. Quite the opposite.

When the interview ended, Jones reached over to shake McFarland’s hand and said, “Booger, just give me some love.”

Everyone on set laughed.

Jones then said: “I told them, we’re cheeseburger buddies.” (From when McFarland was at UT spring football).

McFarland said: “At Long’s grocery store.” (He meant Long’s Drug Store).

There were serious moments earlier in the on-set interview.

McFarland mentioned UT’s nine-win seasons, the team’s inability to win the SEC East, and asked Jones how much pressure he felt to get to Atlanta for the SEC championship game this year.

“That’s the great thing about coaching and playing at the University of Tennessee,” Jones replied. “The expectations are always high, and that’s what you want as a competitor. But the expectations will never be greater than what we have internally, and we want the same thing. We have that internal drive to get there, and that’s what I like about this football team.

“Are we young? Yes, but when we look at how far we’ve come in four years, and a lot of people don’t really want to look at that, but when you step back, you see how far we’ve come. We’re building the program. We will have sustained success, and we’ll get there, and it’s following the process. But we want that more than anything, and I know our fans do. We have the best fans in America, and that’s what drives me, and that’s what drives our players every single day.”

If Jones gets the Vols to the SEC championship game this year, he will pull off an upset. Florida and Georgia are preseason favorites to win the SEC East, according to three preseason publications: Lindy’s Sports, Athlon Sports and Street & Smith.

Lindy’s and Athlon have the Vols finishing third in the East behind Georgia and Florida; Street & Smith has Tennessee third in the East behind Florida and Georgia. All three magazines have South Carolina fourth in the East and Kentucky fifth.

Lindy’s gave Tennessee the lowest preseason national rating (No. 37) of the three magazines, while Athlon had the Vols at No. 19 and Street & Smith at No. 24.

In his opening on-set remarks, Jones pointed to the team’s progress during his tenure.

“Again, we’re very proud of how far we’ve come,” Jones pointed out. “We’re one of three teams in the Southeastern Conference to have won nine games two years in a row. But we want more, and we have a lot of momentum right now. I think that’s evidenced by recruiting, when you look at our third straight bowl win, hasn’t been done at Tennessee in 20 years, the NFL Draft. Again, just very, very exciting.

“I think the energy that the new coaches have brought have really helped us. This, quite frankly, has been the best offseason we’ve had, and I think that’s attributed to Rock Gullickson (new strength and conditioning coach), but also our 17 seniors that we have in our program.”

Jones was one of five coaches listed on Street & Smith’s “Hot-Seat Watch” along with Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, UCLA’s Jim Mora, and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury. Jones didn’t make Lindy’s “5 hot-seat coaches” list. Athlon had Jones on its list of “10 more (coaches) getting warmer” after its list of 10 “Coaches on the Hot Seat.”

McFarland asked Jones if he felt unfair criticism after a couple of nine-win seasons.

“I don’t ever look at it that way,” Jones responded. “I think it’s a program that has high standards and high expectations, and that’s what you want. As a competitor, whether it’s a player or a coach, you want to be associated with a football program like that. Plus, our fans, they want it. And there isn’t anyone that wants it more for them than Butch Jones, our staff and our players, and that’s what we’re working for. But you want to be in a football program that has those high expectations.”

If there’s an issue with Jones’ appearance Monday, it’s what he didn’t say. He wouldn’t admit the 2016 season was a disappointment when asked on the podium.

“I don’t view it as a disappointment,” Jones said. “The way I view it is we didn’t accomplish everything we set ourselves out to do, and again, our goal every year is to win a championship and compete to win a championship, so was it a disappointment? No. Did we not accomplish some of the things we set out to do? Absolutely. We have to learn from the things that went wrong that we could have done better, but I think all you have to look at is it’s difficult to win, and it’s difficult to win championships, and I think this league exemplifies that.”

UT’s biggest tasks in 2017 will be fortifying its defense and finding a quarterback – two big topics for Jones at media day.

Last season, the Vols gave up 218.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked 11th in the SEC and 104th nationally. UT gave up 28.8 points per game (ninth in SEC, 68th nationally), 230.7 passing yards per game (10th in SEC, 72nd nationally) and 449.2 total yards per game (11th in SEC, 95th nationally).

Jones was asked during the on-set interview what it will take for the Vols’ defense to improve.

“As you guys know, this is a line of scrimmage league, and it starts first and foremost with stopping the run,” he explained. “I think the first answer is getting our health back. We have to get a healthy Kendal Vickers back, and he’s back to having his health back, and Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle. Those individuals, we need to get their health back, and then playing team defense and understanding the run fits and how it all fits together. And then getting bigger, stronger and faster, and we’re going to have some true freshmen play as well.

“But the expectation with which we’re going to play defense starts with making a team one-dimensional, taking the run away, but also, we can’t give up the big plays in the back end, and I think having our health back, T.K. (Todd Kelly Jr.) is now back, Evan Berry is back, Micah Abernathy back, all these individuals, Nigel Warrior. Our back end of our defense will be one of the most competitive positions groups we have on our football team.”

The most watched competition in preseason will be for the starting quarterback’s job vacated by Joshua Dobbs, who started three-plus years for Tennessee and now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It’s a race between junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.

“We have an offensive system where we’re going to play (to) the strengths of our players, first and foremost, and you have to have an offense that’s quarterback friendly and is quarterback driven,” Jones said. “But we’ve set no timetable (for naming a starter), and we’ve been encouraged and excited really about both. And really it’s a great problem to have. We have two very, very good, capable quarterbacks with Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano. And they’re competing every day.”

At the podium later, Jones noted both quarterbacks could play.

“I think playing time is earned,” Jones said. “And so, if both players earn the right to play, we’ll play both quarterbacks. I’ve been in systems where we’ve been able to do that. And really, Quinten and Jarrett’s skill sets are very similar to each other, and I think we have an offense that really (fits) the skill sets of the quarterback and all the players around. So again, if both players earn the right to play, they’ll both play.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.