A year ago at this time, Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones was very much on the hot seat. That in itself isn’t surprising — it was a cushion he had seemingly occupied since he arrived in Knoxville.
But, this time felt different. Coming off of back-to-back nine-win seasons, the Vols had seemingly peaked and were in the midst of rebuilds at several key areas. Tennessee’s 9-win team in 2015 finally showed signs that the excellent classes Jones had signed were coming into their own. Surely, 2016 would be the year the Volunteers broke through: senior quarterback, strong running back tandem, an all-SEC type-player at every level of the defense, upperclass-laden wide receiving corps, and a veteran offense.
We know what happened, however. Not all nine-win seasons are created equally: Be it from a combination of erratic football, poor in-game decisions, poor preparation, and simply not showing up against allegedly weaker opponents, the Vols would again be runners-up in a division that was as weak as it had historically ever been.
As often happens in these occasions, bad fortune begat bad judgment in a 2017 campaign that was all-but a pink-slip formality. From seemingly ignoring players’ head trauma, to bizarre motivational schticks, to lashing out at beat reporters and the community, to curious personnel moves, it was apparent the first week that Tennessee was in trouble and that it would only get worse. People may point to the Florida loss as the beginning of the end. But really, when Butch Jones, one of the conference’s ablest recruiters started to lose his class, that’s when the hot seat turned inflammable and he was given his walking papers.
Now, we find a man who just celebrated his 50th birthday functionally interning with his former archrival. This despite the fact that he has almost 150 games in a head coaching career that boasts three Top 10 recruiting classes, four conference titles, and a 4-2 bowl record.
He is now the subject of countless “fill the gas tank” and “pick up the laundry” jokes. And, there is a factual basis for them to be sure. Such as this one, from just yesterday.
Saban the only coach in America that can take a former SEC head coach and turn him into a window washer. pic.twitter.com/kGLtxTo3jI— Jay Retterman (@Jretterman) June 1, 2018
But, that is precisely why he is owed the benefit of the doubt. There is no program in the country that is as heavily scrutinized as this one. There is no program that is put under as much media scrutiny and publicity as this one. Did Jones think that as an offensive analyst he’d be taking a squeegee to the head man’s Mercedes? Maybe, maybe not. But he does it nonetheless, and does do very publicly.
Alabama fans have built up a mythology around themselves and about the football program. It is one of moral superiority, where we vicariously draw smugness as much from the victories themselves as from “doing things the right way.”
But, what does Butch Jones actually teach us? His example is one of actually doing things the right way. He could be sitting on a beach at Cabo, blowing through a buyout, and letting his resume gather dust for a few years. Instead, he was determined to get back to work, no matter what work that may be. Jones could play the aggrieved party, grumble about his mistreatment, and take nothing from his firing. Instead, he is taking stock of his shortcomings as a coach and trying to improve his craft. In a profession with more than a little bit of ego, he has knocked on the door, with hat-in-hand, and very publicly ingratiated himself for the mere opportunity to work even harder.
Whatever you want to say about Butch Jones as a Vol, and whatever his deficits and misteps at Tennessee — they were legion, and I will not defend a single one of his actions there, many of which were morally repugnant and borderline criminal — whatever Butch Jones is doing now, he is embodying the very things that Alabama fans claim to value.
It is an object lesson of humility being taught to a fanbase that in some respects has ignored the very virtues it has parroted for almost a century.
And the fact that a former Vol is doing the teaching may be the most humbling object lesson of all.