The University of Tennessee has fired head football coach Butch Jones. The dismissal comes following Saturday’s loss to the Missouri Tigers. The move is not altogether unexpected, as speculation around Jones’ job status over the last several weeks was rampant.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports first reported the news earlier this morning.
BREAKING Butch Jones is out as #Vols head coach, source tells me. He just informed his staff.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) November 12, 2017
Brady Hoke was named interim head coach for the Volunteers.
Tennessee Fires Head Coach Butch Jones
Frustration with Jones boiled over after a disappointing start to the 2017 season. The Vols needed two overtimes to beat Georgia Tech, and then lost to Florida on a last second 63-yard touchdown pass. In addition to blowout losses against Georgia and Alabama this season, the Vols have also lost the South Carolina (off of a bye week) and Kentucky (for the second since 1985). The loss to South Carolina was the second in a row to the Gamecocks off of a bye week. And the loss to Georgia was the worst home shutout loss in over 100 years for a historically rich Tennessee program.
This weekend’s 50-17 loss to Missouri was the last straw for Jones. Fans and administration alike have been ready to move on for some weeks. Ideally, new Athletic Director John Currie would have liked to wait to the end of the season. But fan, supporter, and booster pressure would not allow it.
Jones’ legacy at Tennessee will be far better in retrospect than it is in the present. When Jones took over in 2013, the Volunteer football program was in disarray.
Program in Disarray
Tennessee went through a messy divorce with Phillip Fulmer in 2008. Lane Kiffin spent one season in Knoxville, leaving in the middle of the night after being offered the USC job. Kiffin’s one season brought in talent and showed promise, but his hurried exit, questionable commitment to discipline and classroom success and bravado left Tennessee susceptible to both NCAA sanctions and public scorn.
Derek Dooley coached for three seasons, 2010-2012, and left the cupboard bare upon his exit last in the 2012 season. In addition to the on-the-field futility, he was a public relations nightmare as well. Dooley had difficulty dealing with boosters and former players.
In the five previous seasons before Jones arrived, Tennessee was 27-34 overall, 11-28 in conference play, and 0-2 in two mid-level bowls. That’s incredibly poor for a program that’s in the top ten in all-time wins, second place in every statistical category in the SEC, and is one of only two major college teams to have never lost eight games in a season.
Rebuilding the Program
Even Jones’ most ardent critics must admit he has righted the ship at Tennessee. The program is once again on solid footing respective to finances, classroom activities, and discipline. Jones has restocked the talent pool. Tennessee is once again one of the three or four most talented teams in the SEC. He is undeniably a great recruiter.
The next coach will step into a program that is ready to win. And that’s a far cry from where it was when Jones arrived on campus.
But that’s what made the last twelve months frustrating for Vols fans.
Jones had the fans believing after a surprising 2015 season, which saw the Vols lose four games, two against teams that eventually landed in the CFP. Moreover, Tennessee led in the fourth quarter of each of those games. Tennessee fans, with seven NFL-caliber players returning for 2016 (Joshua Dobbs, Josh Malone, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Derek Barnett, Cameron Sutton, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin), demanded an SEC East Championship. And things looked in place after beating Florida for the first time in eleven years and a Hail Mary victory over Georgia the following week. Tennessee effectively had a two-game lead over their two main East rivals.
But a stunning loss to South Carolina, coming off of a bye week, was the beginning of the end. Tennessee would go on to lose a Sugar Bowl berth by losing to Vanderbilt in the last game of the season. Jones became the first coach since M.B. Banks in the 1920s to lose twice to Vanderbilt in the same coaching stint.
Tennessee let the 2015 season slip away in four fourth quarters, and fumbled away the 2016 season.
After the season, all of the NFL talent left for the draft.
Which led to the 2017 season. Jones wasn’t able to transition offensive coordinators effectively. Nor was he have to transition quarterbacks. Neither Quinten Dormady nor Jarrett Guarantano has proved to be a sufficient replacement for Dobbs. Tennessee choked away another game against Florida. The Vols were brutalized by Georgia and Alabama. And losses to South Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri sealed the deal.
Tennessee went 15 full quarters — almost four straight games — without a touchdown during the middle of the season.
It was the inability to develop talent, the inability to take advantage of a very weak SEC East, and the continued inability to meet expectations that led to Jones’ dismissal.
As local radio station personality and former Vol Jayson Swain says, “the hire is more important than the fire.” As previously stated, this job should be an appealing one to many top-named coaches. Great facilities, plenty of money, a clean program, and a program stocked with talent means a coach wouldn’t inherit a rebuilding project or a tough situation.
The Vols are ready to win now. This will be Currie’s first big hire. And in the SEC, Athletic Directors are judged on their football hires. There will be plenty of names, including Jon Gruden, Chip Kelly, Matt Campbell, Justin Fuente, Mike Norvell, and others. Look for Currie to be deliberate and very careful in the coaching search.
Whoever it is will be walking into a situation with a tremendous amount of pressure to win, and win quick.