David Cloninger

Criticism of Tennessee coach grows as record improves

Is he or isn’t he?

It’s July, two months before the first game and a whole lot longer before the last, so it’s hard to gauge that any coach is on the hot seat. Looking at his record, three straight winning seasons and three straight bowl wins is a heck of a lot better than what went on under his predecessor.

Yet Butch Jones always seems to have flames attached to his name. For whatever reason, the fifth-year Tennessee coach hasn’t gotten the support his record should have received, mostly from his own fan base.

Life hasn’t been the greatest for Vols fans over the past decade, the foundation of their perch at the top of the SEC East removed far too quickly. Since Tennessee last won the East, Florida has four titles, Missouri and Georgia two each and South Carolina one.

When legendary Vol Philip Fulmer was turfed, Lane Kiffin had his stormy one-year reign and then the Derek Dooley Disaster, Tennessee fell on very hard times. Jones was a breath of fresh air when he arrived, but since, it’s always about what he doesn’t do rather than what he does.

Tennessee has steadily improved, although last year’s 9-4 season matched the previous year’s and was a disappointment considering the lofty preseason praise. Jones has constructed an SEC-caliber roster, which he definitely didn’t have when he replaced Dooley.

But the Vols haven’t finished above fourth in the East and have only one winning conference record in four years. Many bought into the hype last year, 225 of 331 Media Days attendees picking Tennessee to win the East (I didn’t, figuring Joshua Dobbs was an athletic marvel but still couldn’t throw the ball downfield), and it looked legit when the Vols started 5-0.

They cratered in an overtime loss to Texas A&M, then the usual mauling from Alabama and a defeat to South Carolina. A loss to Vanderbilt (!) ended the regular season.

Tennessee beat Nebraska in the Music City Bowl but the grumbling of when the next championship was going to come was heard from all over Volunteer Nation. Jones didn’t help when he made his “Champions of Life” comment after the season – that was immediately ridiculed and has been a staple of every other SEC fan’s mocking arsenal against Tennessee.

The Vols’ player representatives at Media Days talked like they were stumping for Jones. “We’re one of three teams that have back-to-back nine-game winning seasons. Also, we’ve won three consecutive bowl games,” pointed out Jashon Robertson when asked about the hot seat. “That hasn’t been done at the University of Tennessee in 20 years.”

CBS Sports rated Jones a two (out of five, five being flaming) on its rating of hot-seat coaches in Division I. Sports Illustrated said Jones will be just fine as long as Tennessee continues to show improvement and doesn’t get bogged down in an SEC East that once again is wide-open.

“Things were bad when I got here,” defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said. “For us to win three straight bowl games, us to be 9-4 … he’s changed this program so much. And he’s done everything he’s possibly been able to do.”

SEC Network host Booger McFarland thinks Tennessee will be abysmal, and a change will have to be made. Considering Jones is entering his first year under a new athletic director (John Currie, formerly of Kansas State), perhaps a down year will create some questions.

“One of the great things about coaching at the University of Tennessee is the expectations are very high,” Jones said. “As a competitor, you want to be in a situation where the expectations are very high. I’m very proud of how far we’ve come as a program. We want to compete for championships year-in and year-out.

“We have a plan, we’re following the plan.”

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