Butch Jones, courtesy UT Sports
by Dan Wolken , USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports college football reporter Dan Wolken has loaded up the car and hit the road, where he'll check out more than a dozen college football camps in the next two weeks. Each day, he'll file a vignette about what he observed and detail the significant storylines heading into the season.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Even from 50 yards outside Tennessee's practice complex, Butch Jones' voice is omnipresent. It isn't particularly intimidating, nor is it distinctive, and you don't always know where it's coming from. But it's just everywhere, sort of like the Wizard of Oz booming from behind the curtain, filtering down on a program that has spent the past five seasons staggering through the Southeastern Conference.
"Sometimes I get on the mic and say, 'This is your conscience speaking,' " Jones said Monday.
Old-school coaches yell to get their point across. Jones uses a hand-held microphone, and he does it the entire practice, basically narrating directions for everyone through a loudspeaker.
It's something the 45-year old Jones started at Cincinnati, where he had much more success winning Big East championships than keeping his voice. And now, after going 23-14 in the past three seasons, he plans to continue running practice off a microphone at Tennessee, a traditional power that hasn't really played like one during much of the past decade.
"What happened was I found out I had the ability to communicate with everyone on the field," Jones said. "You may be standing on the offensive side of the field and see a defensive player not in a good position or not making plays, so instead of yelling or running down there, you can watch everything. I think they've grown accustomed to it. Every rep has a life of its own and we're trying to coach, correct and critique every play."
Nobody at Tennessee will quibble with a new approach this season, not after the disaster that was the Derek Dooley era. Though Dooley had the pedigree, work ethic and knowledge to be a successful head coach, he was never able to effectively communicate or connect with the 18-to-22 year olds that have to go out and make the plays to win games.
Tennessee didn't necessarily lack talent under Dooley, but every time the Vols got in position to beat good teams, something went horribly wrong - a blown defensive assignment, an ill-timed penalty, a soul-crushing turnover. By the end of last season, as Tennessee was absorbing a 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt, it became clear Dooley had to go. A 5-19 record against the SEC isn't acceptable at a place like Tennessee, and Jones understands that.
"Every day is an opportunity to build this program back, and I say it to our coaching staff and our team and our administration and our recruits: there's a responsibility we all have of getting Tennessee football back to its rightful place among the elite of college football," he said. "It's going to take hard work, but that's why we're here, because we're embracing that."
A lot of this is new for Jones, whose coaching résumé is heavily influenced by his years in the Mid-American Conference as an assistant and then head coach at Central Michigan between 2007 and 2009. Even Cincinnati was nothing like the fishbowl of Knoxville, where every detail of the program is dissected year-round.
But for a guy who's never been around a program like Tennessee, Jones seems quite comfortable doing all the non-football stuff the job demands. Between his success on the rubber chicken circuit and some early recruiting hits, he has had a decidedly winning offseason.
That only lasts so long, though.
Tennessee lost its quarterback and two best receivers off a good offense, needs a lot more talent on defense and faces a ridiculous schedule that includes games against five of the preseason USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll top-10 (Alabama, Oregon, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina). Jones' recruiting work, meanwhile, is a couple years away from paying off, which means the momentum won't be easy to keep.
But as long as Tennessee looks like a functional team that plays with effort and focus, it will be considered progress.
"It's a work in progress. Are we better than we were in the spring? Absolutely, but we're still not to the Tennessee standard," Jones said. "We'll get there, but it's a mindset. Every snap you're either creating good habits or bad habits and you're trying to create habits that are instinctual. So we coach effort on every single snap, and the players, they're starting to see it now. They can see it when they put on the film now that they know it's not right. Now it's about creating the habits by the manner and style of play we're going to have."
Dan Wolken, a national college football reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @DanWolken.