Tennessee Vols football coach Butch Jones is making a solid impression in the community. Will that success carry over to the football field this fall? / FILE / AP
In time, we will find out if Butch Jones can win football games at the University of Tennessee.
For now, though, Jones is making the right moves. He's connecting with fans. He is establishing relationships with former Vols players. Recruiting is on an uptick.
His head coaching history might be with smaller programs in lesser conferences, but Jones sees the big picture of competing in the SEC. He might not have been Tennessee's first choice, but he's determined to prove he was the right choice.
In short, Jones gets it. This is in marked contrast to his predecessor, Derek Dooley.
Over his three-year tenure, Dooley was exposed as an attorney masquerading as a head football coach. He had his moments and recruited some good players along the way, but his inability or unwillingness to connect with the UT fan base and his failure to sweat the small stuff - among other things - were his undoing.
Jones understands the devil is in the detail, especially when you're trying to regain altitude in this conference. During a period where SEC programs have won seven consecutive national championships, UT has had four head coaches and been to a grand total of four bowl games - none since 2010.
Enter Jones. It's safe to say he isn't afraid of a challenge.
Successful college coaches tend to come in two general categories - those who maintain programs and those who rebuild programs. Jones has experience in the former. Now he's involved in the latter.
In his two previous head coaching positions, Jones followed Brian Kelly - first at Central Michigan (2007-09) and then at Cincinnati (2010-12). Both times, he built upon the success Kelly had overseen.
Things are different at UT. The Vols are just 12-28 in SEC games over the past five seasons. Nobody wants Jones to maintain the current course. UT can't afford that.
If Vols football is not winning big and generating the required revenue, everything else struggles. UT's athletics department has been stuck in a bear market. Jones inherited a football program whose season ticket sales have slipped to less than 70,000 after topping out near 73,000 in '08. It is no longer uncommon to see row after row of empty seats at Neyland Stadium.
During a barnstorming tour of the state last month, Jones addressed the need to reconnect with fans, saying that the first step is to give hope that better days are ahead.
"I want fans to look at this coaching staff and realize we are doing everything possible to get University of Tennessee football back where it should be," he said. "It's important that people believe we are going to be competing for championships."
As a means toward that end, Jones has ramped up recruiting. It's early, of course, but Rivals.com ranks UT's 2014 recruiting class No. 6 nationally. That's the good news. The bad news: UT ranks just fifth in the SEC. Texas A&M, LSU, Florida and Ole Miss all are ahead of the Vols.
Jones happened to land at UT when a number of legacies were coming of age. Already, he has won a major recruiting battle by securing a verbal commitment from Todd Kelly Jr., son of a former All-SEC defensive end and first-round draft pick in 1993. Neiko Creamer, son of former UT defensive back Andre Creamer, is another early commitment.
The list goes on and on. Jones is recruiting Dillon Bates, son of former UT and Cowboys star Bill Bates, as well as twins Elliot and Evan Berry, son of ex-Vols running back James Berry and younger brothers of UT All-American Eric Berry.
There are more, including Bailey Lenoir, son of former UT offensive lineman Patrick Lenoir, and Cedric Wilson Jr.
But Jones' biggest recruiting coup thus far is blue-chip running back Jalen Hurd of Beech High. Hurd's commitment sent a message to the competition. It also sent a message to the UT fan base.
It's five months until Jones puts his first Tennessee team on full public display, but the early returns are encouraging.