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Hiring UT football coaches: an exercise in over-corrections?
- Updated: April 5, 2013
Over-corrections. They’re natural, right? It’s how power fades turn into duck hooks, why Hannah Montana (allegedly) started pounding the green scene, and possibly even why Dustin Diamond made a porno. (Ew.)
All of which proving, I might add, that while understandable, over-corrections are seldom pretty. And if you want proof which hits a bit closer to home, then look no further than to the Tennessee Vols.
Because they’re NOT afraid of over-correcting.
UT football coaches, over corrections and Butch Jones
Join me in a trip back, won’t you? To the last year of the Phillip Fulmer era. I don’t wanna rehash the entire ordeal in too much detail because we all know what happened, right? There was a bit of a drop off in the overall performance of the team which caused a significant portion of the fan base to grow restless.
Or perhaps it was best categorized as a drastic drop off in the Vols’ performance against elite teams, the majority of which being in-conference rivals. What was even more disconcerting was their track record against such teams at home. Heading into the 2008 Florida game, UT had only won one of their past eight contests against top-10 teams at Neyland Stadium.
The phrase “fat and happy” was thrown around a time or two back then. And it painted a picture of a man who’d been at the helm for too long. Who, regardless of whether or not he realized it, had lost a step. Who wasn’t humping it quite as hard as he had been, say, during the Clinton Administration. (I just used “humping it” and “the Clinton administration” in the same sentence.) A man who some even felt had lost control of his teams as evidenced by the off-the-field issues that were rampant at the time.
UT went 3-6 over their first nine games that year which was the final piece of evidence needed to compel Mike Hamilton and company to pull the trigger on a very difficult decision. Which, rightly or wrongly, led to a press conference that was hard on everyone, particularly the great man who’d given his all for Tennessee on that day as well as the countless which had preceded it.
And thus, a legend was fired.
The question that emerged in the sad aftermath was a simple one: What’s next?
Something new was the general sentiment. Time, at long last, to step outside the Tennessee family to find the next coach, one who would be a breath of fresh air that contained new thoughts and ideologies. That’s what most felt, at least.
Ergo Lane Kiffin. A guy who is the literal antithesis of Phillip Fulmer. To such an extent, in fact, that if the two were to ever sit side by side, one gets the sense they’d both somehow spontaneously combust (bizarre gardening accident?), thereby officially and permanently cancelling each other out.
I was in the minority with ol’ Lane. At the beginning, at least. Because I never really felt him. I know that’s easy to say now but, I promise, you can ask the Basement Braintrust. They’d tell you. I wasn’t on the Lane Train to the extent that most of them were. And not because I was some bitter Fulmer devotee. Instead, because I simply didn’t care for Kiffin’s style. Maybe I’m helplessly old school, but I prefer a quarter cup of gentlemen in my SEC coach, thank you very much.
In short, while I liked the direction Kiffin seemed to be taking the Vols, the ride never felt right to me.
Lane Kiffin was an over-correction. An over-correction who broke up with the Vol Nation while wearing an un-tucked shirt (what a dick).
At which point, the heartbroken fan base quickly admitted what everyone had known all along, even if they hadn’t wanted to come right out and say it. That the clown never fit in here. He didn’t have the first clue of what it meant to be a Tennessee Vol. Or even what it meant to be in the SEC. What’s worse, he didn’t care.
“Poor cultural fit” was the new “fat and happy,” and as the Vols searched for yet another coach, the phrase was tossed about like confetti to not only describe Lane Kiffin, but to also explain why he left. Because that’s what heartbroken folks looking for new mates do, you know. They make sure everyone understands why the old girl left. That it wasn’t their fault.
I mean, surely if Lane Kiffin had understood what the SEC meant – and more importantly, what being a Tennessee Vol meant – he would have never left, right?
Which is why the next guy had to be a cultural fit. Period. A guy who would appreciate and respect the tradition at a place like UT. A guy who knew what a tremendous and all-encompassing honor it is to coach in college football’s greatest and most passionate conference.
Precisely why, I suspect, Tennessee went out and hired the son of the Grand Poobah of all-things-SEC. A guy who, by his very lineage, understood the sacred nature of tradition. A guy so southern, he practically came with a seersucker suit and a pair of white bucks.
The timing was horrible, obviously, and most everyone understood that because of this, UT wasn’t going to be able to land a top-notch coach. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t find one who was a good cultural fit. They could. And they did.
The only problem was the guy wasn’t a proven coach. Or a very good one, even. At least if you’re going by the 17-20 record he’d amassed over the past three seasons.
At La Tech.
Meet Derek Dooley, friends. Bamboo aficionado and over-correction number two.
Three shitty seasons later, Dooley, despite his southern drawl and kick-ass shower etiquette, was justifiably terminated. And now, once again, the Vols have landed on a guy who appears to be the polar opposite of his predecessor.
Because Butch Jones certainly isn’t southern, right? I mean, hell, he and most of his staff are still working on pronouncing Vols the right way. (Fellas, in case you’re reading, it doesn’t rhyme with BOWLS. It rhymes with BALLS.)
You know another big difference? Access. Butch grants it, both to himself and to his team. Dooley never did. Remember when Double D was first hired and he basically holed up for a couple months, refusing to say BOO to anyone, fans or media alike? The delicate football genius (h/t George Costanza) needed to operate in complete and total silence as he tried to piece together his recruiting class.
Not Butch. He’s been available from word go. Interacting with fans and media alike.
Dooley kept former players at arm’s length and treated them with an air of formality that was often uncomfortable. Jones is welcoming them with open arms and treating them like the family that they are.
And yet another difference: the use of Twitter. Toward the end of last season, Jimmy Hyams asked Dooley about the status of a particular player (I wish I could remember who), to which Derek offered a vague, noncommittal response. So Hyams told the coach what he had been able to glean about the situation from Twitter, suddenly making Dooley’s response sound more uninformed than anything else.
Predictably, Dooley turned to condescending humor as a defense mechanism, shooting back with something along the lines of “Oh, well there you go. I guess I need to get on Twitter, huh?”
But while Dooley mocked social media, Butch Jones has leveraged it. Because, as Jon Reed wrote the other day, Coach Jones has embraced Twitter and turned it into a wonderful recruiting tool tool that’s not only producing fantastic (albeit early) results, but is also providing the Vol Nation with a supporting role in the process.
So, yeah. From a blue-blooded, condescending and myopic southerner to a blue-collared, all-inclusive and open-minded northerner. I’d say that’s about as polar opposite as it gets. Wouldn’t you?
David Climber wrote an interesting piece about Butch the other day. In it, he says Jones “might not have been Tennessee’s first choice, but he’s determined to prove he was the right choice.”
So is he the right choice?
Naturally, only time will tell, so I’ll reserve ultimate judgement for the appropriate time. But as of right now, I know two things for certain.
First, he’s off to as good of a start as is humanly possible.
And second, he’s the complete opposite of Derek Dooley. Only this time it doesn’t feel like an over-correction.
Instead, just a correction. And a sorely needed one at that.