KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A Tennessee helmet signed by Peyton Manning sits prominently displayed in Butch Jones’ office at the Vols’ plush new digs, a reminder of where this program once operated among college football’s upper crust.
Manning’s signature includes a short note that reads simply: “Coach Jones, I’m in your corner.”
The truth is that they’re lining up in Big Orange Country to be in Jones’ corner. He hasn’t won a game, hasn’t even coached in a game. But he’s made a lot of right moves to this point, starting with fully embracing Tennessee’s traditions and reaching out to the former players.
“It’s the pride of who we are,” Jones said. “Those individuals have laid the foundation for this program. They’re the ones who’ve put in the sweat equity. They are who we are, and it’s important that our players understand the great players who came before them.”
It’s one of the reasons Jones is bringing back a captain from every era to address the team. Manning was on campus last week. Al Wilson, who captained the 1998 national championship team, is also scheduled to come in at some point.
On Friday, Jones tweeted out a picture of he and Arian Foster together in Tennessee’s new $45 million football complex. Foster, the Houston Texas’ All-Pro running back, had not been back to campus since 2009. He spoke to the team on the eve of Saturday’s Orange & White spring game.
“There’s only one Tennessee, and we’re going to get back to being Tennessee,” vowed Jones, who’s made it a point to get out and see fans, engage fans on social media, and speak just about anywhere he’s asked to speak.
“I think our fans and former players see our body of work, and feel the passion and energy and zeal me and my coaching staff have to be here at Tennessee. We’re one of them and as impatient as anyone, but we’re going to do it right and build it brick by brick and make sure that foundation is set in stone.”
As passionate as Jones is, he’s equally realistic. There aren’t going to be any quick fixes, not with a killer schedule in 2013 that includes trips to Alabama, Florida and Oregon.
The good news is that the Vols return an offensive line that should be one of the best in the SEC. But just about everywhere else, there are major question marks.
Simply getting to a bowl game next season would be a huge accomplishment for the Vols, who have suffered through three straight losing seasons.
“We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to overcome some of the challenges we have starting out with our effort, our fundamentals, and our chemistry,” said Jones, who won four conference championships in his six seasons as head coach at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.
“The big thing for us is continuing to get better in our program day by day, hour by hour, and the winning will take care of itself.”
Amazingly, Jones is the fourth different head coach at Tennessee in the past six seasons. It’s hard to find genuine stability anywhere these days in the realm of SEC football. But for more than 30 years, the Vols were coached by two men -- John Majors and Phillip Fulmer.
Jones is hellbent on bringing back that stability, and his players insist the difference from the old regime under Derek Dooley has been night and day.
“There’s no locker room drama, people talking bad in the locker room,” said junior safety Brian Randolph, who is healthy again after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. “We used to have those people. That went away once coach Jones got here. The locker room atmosphere is much better, people hyped every day for practice. The team camaraderie is a lot better.”
Junior quarterback Justin Worley said Jones has followed through on giving everybody a fresh start, which has made for some fierce competition on the practice field this spring and eliminated any sense of entitlement that might have existed previously.
“Everybody’s had an opportunity to prove what they can do on the field and off the field, whether it’s in the classroom or the weight room,” said Worley, who exits the spring as the Vols’ likely starter at quarterback.
“That’s been a huge change. He hasn’t focused on just a small group of guys. We’ve had some walk-ons even step up and take some reps. We’ve never had that here. It really has been a clean slate, and we needed that.”
Something else Jones has done is get off to a blazing start on the 2014 recruiting class, which has been his most important move. The Vols were No. 7 nationally in ESPN’s early class rankings. They have already landed a pair of commitments from ESPN 150 prospects Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. A third ESPN 150 prospect, linebacker Dillon Bates, could be soon to follow.
If the Vols are indeed going to return to elite status under Jones, they have to get back to beating teams on the recruiting trail that they have to beat on the field. When they had it rolling under Fulmer in the 1990s, that was the formula.
Jones’ message to recruits hasn’t wavered since he took the job, and the early returns suggest that they’re listening.
“We have it all right here at Tennessee, and then to be on the ground floor to build it back to its rightful place makes it even more special,” Jones said. “That’s a legacy, and something that will live with you for the rest of your life.
“It’s easy for players to go somewhere that’s established and they can just sort of fit in. Go some place you can make a difference.”
They’re believers on Rocky Top that Jones will make a difference. It’s just going to take some time.