September 10, 2013

Gameday on Rocky Top: A view from inside



Photo Feature: Go inside Gameday

Editor's note: VolQuest.com was granted exclusive, behind-the-scenes access with Tennessee coach Butch Jones and the Vols players and support staff for last week's 52-20 win against Western Kentucky. This is a look at the day.

The game merely is the public viewing. Three hours through the college football window.

It is the culmination of seven days, the week's 168 hours and Butch Jones spends many of his focusing on his Tennessee team and its opponent.

Today Western Kentucky, what with a season-opening win against SEC resident Kentucky and born-again coach Bobby Petrino, is a trendy pick to upset Jones' Volunteers. It is hard to imagine any detail is left unattended; UT's coaches own WKU film from the spring thanks to video coordinator Joe Harrington; video of the 'Toppers' season-opening win lingers from late Saturday night.

Still, Jones rises at 3:30 a.m. --- four-and-a-half hours before team breakfast. He is thinking of the game. Of any potential oversight. What message he will bid his team carry onto the field. Jones barely is harnessed energy, and sleep no longer is an option.

"You're rehearsing every possible situation in your mind," Jones later says.

Tennessee's players receive one final dress rehearsal --- an offensive walk-through in the downtown hotel parking lot; a defensive 'clap-session' in a ballroom --- only after an immense breakfast feast. The buffet line includes filet mignon, scrambled eggs, hash browns and an omelet bar.

Seating is both positional and family style; the grouping and format hearkens back to the ways Phillip Fulmer structured his gameday setup, according to football operations director Brad Pendergrass. Jones' touches, explains longtime assistant Chris 'Spags' Spognardi, blend the head coach's stressing of the family component --- larger rectangle tables accommodate the bigger position groups and foster a family-style dining element --- with NFL touches Jones carries from his relationships with Marvin Lewis and Greg Schiano, among other league coaches.

Doors open for breakfast around 8, with several of the Vols' specialists among the first to enter. There is some flexibility, with players entering at their leisure in the early going, but every player knows he's to be seated with his position by 8:30. Anything else isn't tolerated, and each position coach eats with his group. Again, the focus is family and accountability.

Motivational signs --- "63 Effort," "What Do You Fear," "I Will Give My All For Tennessee" --- adorn every turn in every hallway of space the team uses. This is Jones' way; the signs are the results of graphics guru Jonathan King and Spognardi.

"Coach is a big visual guy; he wants guys to see the messages they hear," Pendergrass and Spognardi explain separately, with Jones later saying essentially the same thing.



"I tell him all the time, he's the captain of the ship. Not downing anybody else that was here before, but I love him. He's on us tough, but we know it's only for love. He wants to see us succeed, and whenever you get a guy like that, you'll run through a wall for him. We're excited. We love that guy like crazy. Man, I wish I had all four [years to play for Jones] without a doubt." -- senior Marlon Walls


Several assistants and support staff talk with Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek, whose son, Zac, is the starting quarterback at Knoxville Catholic High School and a teammate of UT secondary coach Willie Martinez's son of the same name. The Irish outlast their rivals and defending Class 3A state champion CAK Warriors, 17-14, in overtime. Jancek remembers a Friday afternoon conversation with his son.

"We were talking and he asked, 'Dad, you going to be able to make it to the game?'," Jancek, there by halftime, recalls. "That just sort of puts it all into perspective."

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian paces the floor; stops at the quarterbacks table and to visit running backs, tight ends, offensive line and receivers. At 8:49, UT's offensive leader announces "Offense, offense: Follow me! Walk-through."

Moments later, the Vols' defenders file into the ballroom. Coaches bark out play-calls. Players line up. Intensity isn't up to par. Jancek and defensive line coach Steve Stripling start them over.

Jones glides down in virtual silence, fist-bumping those on the elevator and listening as 'Spags' reminds him from UT media relations head Jimmy Stanton that an ESPN sideline reporter will ask a couple of questions to Jones on the field.

Soon, it's the highlight/hype video. Jones, staccato march, files into the team room and without preamble delivers a brief but intense message:

"Guys, I've been thinking about this all day: you get to do something very special today, something that few people get to do. You know what it is? You get to give your all for Tennessee. When you touch that sign today in the locker room, you're signing your name that you will give your all for Tennessee.

"A pride of who we are is on display today. Let nothing stand in our way. If it takes four overtimes? We'll go four overtimes. Whatever it takes. Let's make it a day to remember!"

Jones is silhouetted by the projection screen where Marc Votteler rests at the control for Harrington's video compilation. He is flanked by the program's new "Brick-by-Brick" trophy and football, the ones signed by all players, coaches and support staff the night before Tennessee's 2013 season opener.

"I will give my all for Tennessee, that means everything to me," junior cornerback Justin Coleman, on the verge of a career day, says. "When I go out there, I literally take it as that meaning to me. Basically when I go out there, I'm going to give my all for the teammates next to me and the coaches that coach me."

Everyone departs for the three team buses. Jones sits in the front seat of the front bus, flanked by good friend Danny Buggs. Police escort flanking all sides, the buses make five turns and roll onto Neyland Drive. They'll make four more turns onto campus and then disembark for the traditional 'Vol Walk.'

The early kickoff lends to a warning that the crowd might not be so large and enthusiastic as the one that formed a living sea of orange the previous week.

"I was told it was going to be a light 'Vol Walk'," one staffer says. "This isn't light. Light is a handful of fans and band members. Look at this crowd."

Indeed fans are lined like canned goods, 10 to 15 deep, along Peyton Manning Pass as the Vols trek to Neyland Stadium at 10:06 for pre-game prayer, taping, stretching and, as coaches stress, hydration. Buggs and UT chaplain Roger Woods lead the team, circled up and arms linked around the 'Power T' at midfield, in prayer.

Jones and Spognardi head into the Wolf-Kaplan Center to mingle with recruits on hand for the game. Pendergrass and Stanton head to the 100-minute meeting with officials, the chain crew, SEC and TV representatives.

The Vols' Peyton Manning Locker Room features virtually every imaginable amenity, and athletic trainers are taping up players in a symphony of efficiency. Tennessee also has a chiropractor on hand, both at all home games and on the road.

Specialists are the first to the field to begin pre-game kicking. Every player knows his group's order. Tennessee returns to its locker room en masses approximately 22 minutes before kickoff. Players form a semicircle in front of the godfather of Tennessee football Gen. Robert R. Neyland's game maxims and then recite the Lord's Prayer. Jones offers just a few words before turning loose his team to make its famed 'Run Through the T' formed by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band.

"Remember, everyone who touches that sign, it means a little more; it's a little more special today," Jones says, just feet below the 'I Will Give My All for Tennessee' sign that's the state's orange outline and hangs above the locker room doors. "Let me work; you just go play."

The Vols then recite, one by one in unison, the seven game maxims. Captains exit for the coin toss. Tennessee takes the field and senior Michael Palardy booms the game's opening kick, precisely at 12:21 p.m., for a touchback.

The Hilltoppers march 55 yards on 14 plays but settle for a field goal. Tennessee cannot immediately answer offensively, but Coleman soon takes care of the Vols' meager deficit. Snaring a deflected pass that should have been caught, Coleman races untouched 23 yards into the left corner of the end zone and Tennessee leads.

It sets into motion a dizzying chain of events; WKU turns over the ball five times in a span of six offensive plays. The Vols pair a Cam Sutton pick-six from 36 yards out with rushing touchdowns from Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, as well as a Palardy field goal, for a 31-3 lead. It all happens in four minutes, 26 seconds of game clock.

"General Neyland Maxim Two: Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way, score," Jones says in the aftermath of the Vols' 52-20 win. "I thought we were opportunistic in the first half."

WKU somewhat scrambles back into the game, narrowing its deficit to 31-17 just before the break. This is what Jones wants; he needs his team to be tested before back-to-back voyages to second-ranked Oregon and erstwhile nemesis Florida. He tells them as much at halftime.

"I'd like to think, you know, when you're on the sidelines you're always trying to take two or three steps ahead in the game. You're rehearsing every situation in your mind, but also you're watching your players and how they're performing and trying to see what they need," Jones explains. "Do they need to make adjustments? Do they need encouragement? So you're looking at managing the game but also attending to the needs of your players."

Tennessee opens the second half with a surgical five-play, 59-yard drive that lapses but 1:44 off the clock. After failing to control or even sustain any kind of first-half offensive rhythm, the Vols own possession for 18:10 and amass 298 of their 382 yards during the third and fourth quarters.

"He's just a players' coach. He's all about us. I respect Butch Jones and everything he does," says Alton 'Pig' Howard. "He just has to remind us that we're Tennessee and regardless that this program has had some ups and downs, it's about brick-by-brick we're trying to build this program. He reminds us we're the winningest program at home in the SEC and he's just trying to bring that confidence back to us."

Players are returning that embrace. Inside the locker room, the clock inching toward 4 p.m. and after players and coaches jog to the south end zone to sing in front of the band and thank fans, the celebration does not begin until Jones enters the team bunker. Tennessee's new "Smokey Gray" alternate uniforms to be worn for a game this season are tangible proof Jones listens to his players, they say; Jones' daily actions are the rebar of his message.

"I tell him all the time, he's the captain of the ship," senior Marlon Walls, who committed to Phillip Fulmer, signed with Lane Kiffin and now has played for both Derek Dooley and Jones, says. "Not downing anybody else that was here before, but I love him. He's on us tough, but we know it's only for love. He wants to see us succeed, and whenever you get a guy like that, you'll run through a wall for him. We're excited. We love that guy like crazy. Man, I wish I had all four [years to play for Jones] without a doubt."

Players are again in semicircle awaiting Jones' entrance; they dance --- a focal point of improvement from the previous week --- and sing "Rocky Top." Again they pray. Jones lauds their effort, their response to adversity and makes clear much more is expected and much more is to be done.

But he is struck by the players' greeting.

"That's one of the best feelings you could have," Jones says of players awaiting his arrival to celebrate post-game. "That's just, I think, the way our kids have bought in."

Jones winds through the labyrinthine passageways and emerges from behind a black curtain for his post-game press conference. Somehow, orange remains the room's dominant color.

He sticks to his message, of Neyland's maxims and capitalizing on turnovers and managing the game. Jones already is thinking of recruiting and Oregon, the two things foremost on his mind. Myriad ballyhooed prospects are on campus this day, most of them on unofficial trips to see the Vols play; Tennessee doesn't get another home game until Sept. 28.

And Jones' day is far from done. He motions for his son and his friend to follow him out of the press conference and back into the locker room. Jones visits with his family, his players' families, former players and recruits and their families.

He remains in the stadium until 7 p.m. Then he goes to the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex that houses his top-floor office and returns to work, heading home around 10:30. Jones returns to his office early Sunday morning, does TV's "Butch Jones Show" live beginning at 9 and again proceeds to work.

Jones is running on little sleep, mostly adrenaline and the knowledge that it's less than seven days, less than 150 hours, until the Vols kick off at Oregon.




 

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