March 28, 2013

Jones' rise to the top starts early

Exclusive Photo Gallery: Behind the scenes with Butch Jones


Smoke, suspended and frozen on an unseasonably cold Thursday morning, billows up from the University of Tennessee's Steam Plant as darkness and quiet still envelope the Knoxville campus. It might be just about all that rises before Butch Jones, the Vols' new football coach and man charged with making sure the steam clouds and all others give way to sunshine on Rocky Top.

So Jones, with son Alex trudging along with him before embarking on his own day at nearby Knoxville Catholic High School, beats sunrise and most everything and everyone else onto campus for the sixth of Tennessee's 15 spring practice dates. Alex asks his dad if they can leave the office before 10 on this night. Jones insists he will do his best.

This day, however, imbues the perpetually-in-motion Jones with a bit of additional restlessness --- and not merely because 250 miles north Jones' wife, Barb, and other two sons, Adam and Andrew, will watch movers pack up their truck for the Jones' long-awaited reunion in Knoxville. Spring break looms for the Vols, and Jones wants neither a disinterested football team nor a lackadaisical practice.

"I'm getting after them a little bit today, not getting after them, but challenging them," Jones explains. "We're still trying to see who our leaders are going to be, trying to find our Alpha males."

Jones, however, will not initiate this day's work on the present of Tennessee football without exercising his commitment to old-fashioned work on its future. After a quick shower, Jones sits at his desk inside the new wing of the Vols' $45 million addition to the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center/Anderson Training Facility and pens 10 hand-written letters to key recruits and high school coaches.

This is not done by an assistant, nor is it a form letter to which Jones merely affixes his name. Jones believes in the personal touches and believes in the process; to pass off the work would be to cheat his own convictions, those honed decades earlier washing dishes in Saugatuck, Mich., and in his first two football jobs, virtually free labor, during an internship in the equipment cage for the Tampa Bay Bucs and a graduate assistant post at Rutgers University.

"Coach doesn't let anybody write the letters for him," says Chris Spognardi, whose belief in Jones has carried him from Central Michigan to Cincinnati and now Tennessee as assistant to the head coach. "He does that every day."

Moments after 7, though, Jones is on the move again. Most days he will at a minimum pop through the door of every positional meeting, but Jones never misses the special teams meeting, which starts promptly at 7:10. Jones still coaches one of the Vols' punt units, and Jones admits he loves the instructional aspects of special teams and wide receivers.

Not that it hampers Jones' macro view.

"The thing with Butch is that I truly think he gets the big picture," says Tennessee's Director of Football Operations Brad Pendergrass, who could have a path into athletic administration and already has worked with head coaches at Mississippi State, Wisconsin and Tennessee. "He understands the kids who play for him, and he understands recruiting. He knows how to motivate. From talking Xs and Os to embracing social media, he knows how to deliver his message. And he's got a way about him that makes people want to gravitate towards him."

Jones, an almost obsessive attention to detail that sees him pause en route to practice to close a defensive meeting room door, worries about getting the most from his team today. The Vols will practice, go to class and watch film.

Then, they will disperse until reconvening on campus Easter Sunday.

"Mediocre people don't like high achievers, and high achievers don't like mediocre people," Jones says before nearly sprinting onto the turf.

Jones' gait, the Olympic Committee would label it speed-walking, has a way of making others struggle to keep up. Taking the stairs down to the Vols' indoor field, strength coach Dave Lawson speaks to some high school coaches and says of attempting to stay in Jones' shadows, "I hope you've got your running shoes on."




"Every tackle you make. Every class you attend. Every homework assignment you turn in. Every meeting you sign your last name. That's the only thing that can't be taken from you, your last name. That's your personal brand. What does it stand for?"
- Butch Jones


Moments after 8:30, the Vols are doing team stretches and Jones, clutching the wireless microphone that is as much a staple on his practice fields as helmets and mouthpieces, begins his motivational work.

"Soft guys will get exposed today!" Jones intones. "We're fighting for blades of grass today! Fighting for blades of grass! C'mon LaTroy! You're going to get exposed! Justin Coleman didn't come to get better today!

"Practice is recess! Practice is recess!"

At 8:57, Jones is in the middle of the Vols' "black-and-blue" drills. He talks of football being a "real estate game," and wants players to protect their turf.

Players are told from the outset of camp that a lack of knowledge of what to do on the practice field is something coaches will correct; lethargy is intolerable. So when drills shift and players flip ends of the field, a couple of veterans run in place --- as Jones & Co. have instructed --- until they see where they need to be.

The Vols work just beyond their 10:30 target, Jones challenging the team in the waning moments to ensure a sharp focus leading into the break. Offensive and defensive players shake hands, customary following the conclusion of every practice, before Jones implores the team to be safe on spring break and continue absorbing the lessons of the first half-dozen practices.

This, however, is not where Jones leaves his players for the day. Instead, as has been his standard for several years, Jones rolls through the locker room to check on players, see who had good days and bad; see if anyone might need an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

"I want to look in their eyes," Jones explains, "and just make sure they're doing OK. These guys have a lot going on and a lot asked of them."

By 11:15, Jones is at his desk and reviewing the day's penalty log. Practice video from Joe Harrington already awaits the Vols' coach, and he accesses it both on a laptop and one of two high-def TVs.

"(NCAA) Tournament starts at 12, right?" Jones asks, before the top tv dial rests on ESPN's SportsCenter, where Jones ignores it to study film, mark up practice notes and check out the Vols' nearly 10-page spring break recruiting guide, given to Jones and every single member of the Tennessee coaching staff.

A knock at the door meshes simultaneously with a voice asking, "Coach Jones?" It's Tennessee's czar of athletics, Dave Hart. A former basketball player and coach, Hart is a routine practice attendee these days and he's got a couple of questions for Jones regarding some future time for the two to spend together. The two chat amiably; it lasts less than five minutes.

Jones' palatial office is comfortable, unassuming. There's a jar of Starbursts, miniature Hershey candybars.

And oh yes, several mementos celebrating the Miami Heat's 2012 NBA title. Turns out Jones and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra have become boys across the past year. So much so that Jones is pictured on a wall in his office with Spoelstra inside the Miami locker room moments after the Heat's Game 5 triumph against Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals.

So much so that Spoelstra and Jones chat within both their seasons while Miami, its winning streak crowding 30, marches toward a potential date with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA history books.

But back to the friendship of the two coaches.

"(Spoelstra) is a very, very good friend of mine," Jones explains. "He has become a really close friend.

"So much parallels between football and basketball. Last year, we talked a lot about motivation and we talked about 'Sign your name,' and the Heat adopted that during their playoff run. I had the opportunity to be at a number of playoff games and my son Alex and I were with them Game 5 when they clinched against Oklahoma City.

"I just really respect what he's done, his job with the scrutiny and the ability to have a bunker mentality and not let outside distractions creep in. I'm really excited to see them doing so well and looking forward to being a part of it this year."

Why did the coaches bond over the 'Sign your name' mantra?

"Your last name is your personal brand," Jones explains. "When you sign your last name, what does it stand for? Every tackle you make. Every class you attend. Every homework assignment you turn in. Every meeting you sign your last name. That's the only thing that can't be taken from you, your last name. That's your personal brand. What does it stand for?"

It's nearly noon, almost six hours since Jones' arrival on campus for the work day, but he isn't close to being at the midway point. Jones is preparing for a sit-down, one-on-one question-and-answer session with a tv reporter from the Tri-Cities.

And he's looking over the lunch menu, finding that his favorite --- meatloaf --- is on today's menu at Gibbs Hall.

"But," Jones emphasizes, "it has to have ketchup. You can't have meatloaf without ketchup."

No one argues.

Jones is engaging throughout the entire interview, which spans some 20 minutes, and even when it's over Jones makes small talk about Wilkes University, where Jones was offensive coordinator and both men have ties.

Lunch awaits Jones in the anteroom portion of his office, and he eats alone until junior franchise tackle Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson drops in for a chat.

Already on this day, Pendergrass shares that he sees more current players than anywhere he's been visiting the head coach's office without a specific summons. Told of this later, Jones leans in and earnestly says, "We need more."

Richardson and Jones meet alone at the conference/dinner table, where the autographed photo testimonial from Jones' friend, Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl winning-coach Mike Tomlin, stands framed following Tomlin's Knoxville visit the previous day. In town Wednesday for the Vols' pro day workouts, Tomlin mentions that "I would not hesitate to let my sons play football for Butch Jones."

Jonathan King, Tennessee's creative guru, catches wind of Tomlin's comments, designs the print and hurries to mail it out to prospects across the nation. Tomlin sees the photo on his way to Jones' office and affixes his signature to it.

King, UT assistant athletic director for marketing Jimmy Delaney and others are soon taking seats at Jones' table, where the topic du jour is the image and marketing campaign for Tennessee football in 2013.

Jones is an ideas guy, and this is where it shows. He dives into the meeting and rattles off the various Tennessee traditions, fixtures of Volunteers football that he believes should be hallmarks of any Tennessee imaging. King did big things at Alabama and others in the room recount experiences from working with other head coaches.

No one remembers any as enjoyable to work with as Jones. Delaney, however, saves the best for last.

He tells Jones he wants to read a script and show storyboards for an upcoming Tennessee football commercial. Delaney's last line is priceless. Jones rocks back in his chair.

"That gave me chills," Jones says. "When do you want to do it?"

Planning to shoot the commercial takes on loose form; it will air leading into the Vols' 2013 season.

Meanwhile, off-the-field meetings now give way to what Jones relishes --- the football laboratory and film study just before 3 p.m.

Jones joins Mike Bajakian, Zach Azzanni, Mark Elder, Robert Gillespie, Don Mahoney, Anthony Parker, Derrick Lett and Cody Kempt to review the morning's practice on the offensive side of the ball.

Every thing is studied. Everyone has a voice. Bajakian runs the show, and 25 feet away from the screen he spots a player lined up a half-foot askew. Bajakian also sees things he likes from his quarterbacks at times and dislikes at other points.

But every play is viewed, and no play is watched merely once. At one point, the Vols' offensive staff starts and stops and watches a pass play 10 times. The ball fell incomplete. Their efforts to see why will not. Mahoney is at the screen. Azzanni is seen instructing a wideout, who then doesn't follow instructions.

Jones pops up to the front of the room to illustrate a point on the screen.

There is an unlimited supply of waters, Monster Zero Calorie energy drinks and banter within the room. Coaches trade old war stories, of players busting plays and seemingly locked out of buildings. There is an ease and obvious camaraderie, even for Gillespie as he winds down his first month on the job. Parker asks Azzanni about Lett's playing days under Azzanni at Bowling Green, hoping for material for more smack talk. Azzanni sees what's going on but stays loyal to Lett; he says Lett always brought it on the practice field and always had a little edge to him. Azzanni wants this from his Vols wideouts.

Northwestern assistant Matt MacPherson stops by the meeting room; MacPherson's Wildcats are on break, and he's been visiting family in the area while also catching up with the Vols' staff and touring UT's facility. Everyone wants a look at the Vols' new palace, and MacPherson tells Jones that Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald wishes to get together with Jones, perhaps as soon as May. Jones says they'll make it happen.

Film study resumes. Jones watches and watches and takes notes and watches.

He says, to no one in particular, that "I'm not going to sleep any on spring break." The staff knows that the final nine practices of spring camp must each build upon the small foundation set.

Soon, wideout Cody Blanc is in the coaches' film room to speak with Azzanni. Blanc promises the coaches, who only semi-seriously needle Blanc about his flowing lox, that a haircut awaits his first touchdown. Bajakian, recalling a one-handed catch Blanc made in the end zone during that morning's practice, wonders aloud if that play shouldn't result in a trim.

Before long, quarterback Justin Worley, wideout Jacob Carter and offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson also stop by and watch several plays with the coaches. The players are reminded to be safe and smart, once again, in their spring break travels. Kerbyson, a Knoxville native who starred at the same Catholic school where Jones' son now attends, jokes that "Coach, I'm going 15 minutes down the road."

Just as film study is winding down, a pair of high-profile recruits are stepping in. They're in the lobby of the Vols' Neyland-Thompson Sports Center by the Tennessee football hall of fame area, and Bajakian suggests coaches make their way downstairs to meet the prospects.

Jones stresses family, which is obvious in this interaction and obvious in his son's return to his father's office after school.

Around 5, Jones meets with assistant director of football operations Heather Ervin to examine Jones' scheduling demands and requests for the next several weeks and months. An HD-TV is tuned to the NCAA Tournament, but Alex sleeps soundly on a leather sofa.

Jones jokes about this being a "boring" portion of his day. He is being asked to grand marshall parades, speak across the state and region, appear here, sign autographs there, and oh yes, coach up a football team reeling from consecutive seasons without bowl berths.

Soon Jones will start watching defensive video --- first in his office and then with John Jancek and the defensive staff.

The process unfolds in much the same way. Coaches coach out loud in the film room with one another so that they can coach their players at their next opportunity.

The day, finally, is winding down. Most people are gone. Jones, if nothing else, is a grinder above all.

Darkness again encompasses Rocky Top when Jones leaves around 9, making good on his son's request to exit before 10. The day unfolds and ends without a mention of Jones' championship track record, which boasts four conference championships in six years of being a coach.

That's the past, though, and it isn't remotely Jones' focus. Father and son get into their car, and steam still rises in the darkness.

The goal, the expectation, the demand, is that so, too, will Tennessee. And on Friday, Jones will again beat the sunshine into his office to continue the process.




 

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