On Feb. 19, head coach Butch Jones sat down with The Daily Beacon's sports editor and assistant sports editor to discuss the future state of UT football.
Q: Where do you see the program going in the short term?
A: You always go into a situation where you expect to win. We expect to win championships and we expect to compete at the highest level. Everything we do in our program is based off of excellence, from academics in the classroom, to how we perform in the community, to how we perform on the field. ... Everything is about competing on a day-to-day basis in all that we do. Do we have some work to do? Absolutely, we have a lot of work to do, but I'm extremely encouraged by what I've seen. ... Winning is a process. It's a journey. That's why you have to take one day at a time.
Q: Next season. Let's talk about short term goals. What are you working toward?
A: Right now, our team is being born. It's team 117. It's the 117th edition of Tennessee football. No two teams are ever the same. Each team is different because one third of your players are different from year to year with college football. I think the big thing is developing our identity right now. We're developing our personality by the way we train in this off-season. Now when we go to spring football, we're also developing our personality on the field, our identity by the way we're gonna play, the style of play, but also evaluating who our playmakers are. We've graduated, especially offensively, a lot of production so who are those playmakers gonna be? I think that's the big thing. Really identifying who the individuals are that can help us win come next fall. That's why spring football is critical. We're identifying the players that we're gonna be able to win with. I think it's a step-by-step process. I think people always want to focus on the end result and in terms we have to focus on the journey and that's day by day by day, and it becomes a body of work.
Q: How excited are you about your signing class?
A: I'm excited about the class because, first of all, we had a recruiting profile. The world of college football and the world of recruiting has changed so much because of the media scrutiny. A lot of times the media blows 17-year-old individuals up who have never played a down of college football. You look at the National Football League and they invest millions and millions and millions of dollars in their industry of evaluation and they're not always right. When you're dealing with 17- and 18-year-old individuals like we are, we have a recruiting profile. We felt like we were able to attract individuals here in a very short period of time, a challenging 31 days, because recruiting is relationships. That's what it's based off of ... I think we were able to attract individuals that have very high character, they were champions not only on the field, but off the field in their high schools and they showed a passion and a commitment to want to be at (UT). I think they're going to serve to be the foundation of this football team for many years to come. ... Out of those 21 signees, five are already enrolled in school right now taking classes and going through spring. I'm excited. Anytime you have an opportunity to sign the two quarterbacks that we signed with their talent and their skill set and their leadership, they're winners, that's going to lend itself down the road and I think we're able to address some of our needs. ... Recruiting is ongoing and next year's class, obviously, will be critical as we continue to build the program.
Q: How confident are you in your ability to compete in the SEC?
A: Football is football. Everyone wants to make things out about the SEC, but you look at some of the greatest coaches that have coached in this conference had zero SEC experience. People forget. Even in the building of Alabama's program, they forget the growing process that that program went (through) under Coach Saban when he first started the program there. ... You can go on and on about the individuals that had zero SEC experience, football is football. We're in a development business. It's about the program that develops their players to meet their fullest potential and then it's about recruiting. You win with players. It's a whole deal ... I'm excited about it. ... It's a league that challenges, not only week-in and week-out, but every day. On the field, off the field, when you're a competitor you want to compete against the best each and every day and that's what the SEC brings.
Q: How do you see yourself reaching out to fans and students and getting them more involved in helping the program succeed?
A: They're one of us and I'm a part of them. I think that's big. It's the pride of who we are. We're one Tennessee, we're Tennessee football and that's why I've embraced our fans and our student body. They are special. Our fans, our student body, our media, everything that's associated with our program, that's what makes us who we are: Tennessee. That's what makes this a very special place, because of the passion. You want to be at a place where football is important and obviously it's very important here.
Q: Former basketball head coach Bruce Pearl really engaged with the students and built their team spirit. How are you hoping to interact with students in a way that supports the football program?
A: I can tell you this, I'm not gonna take my shirt off. I was watching ESPN the other night and they had it on TV again. ... You're going to see me around. I'm a part of the community and I'm one of them and they're one of us. You're going to see me around, you're going see me visible. I think that's what makes this place unique. ... There isn't a pedestal or anything like that that we sit on. You're going to see me out, you're going to see me interact with our fans, our student body, because again, they're what make this place very special. They're a part of what I call the football family.
Q: You talk a lot about recruits. How are you investing in the players you already have at UT?
A: I never view them as this coach's players or their players or our players. They represent Tennessee. They're Tennessee players. I think that's the first thing. They are our players, they're Tennessee. It's just like anything. We're in the educational business so we educate them on everything. How you present yourself. That's why VOLympics (Jones' split his team into 10 teams with two captains each; the teams gain and lose points based on on-field performance, classroom performance, community service and team-building events) that we're going through right now, our off-season competition, is critical. You try to teach them, coach them, mentor them, everything you can. What we're trying to do right now is develop these relationships and trust, and trust is earned over time. As much as we're developing, it's like I told every individual football player, they're in the process of building their own identity. They're building their identity by their actions both on and off the field. They're building their personal brand. I'm a big believer in production and what you are doing to represent the (UT) football program. You keep hearing me say both on the field and off the field. Our theme right now is, 'be a champion.' Before we can ever think of being a champion football team, our team has to be comprised of individual champions. ... When you have a team comprised of individual champions then that lends itself to being able to compete for championships on Saturday. ... I've been really encourage by what I've seen so far.
Q: How do you make a team out of recruits coming in and players that have been passed on to you from another season and another coach?
A: It's the most challenging thing. Everyone thinks you just assemble a group of guys and you go out there and play football and there's just so much more to it. The great teams win with great team chemistry. I've never seen a team win championships that were a team comprised of individuals. It's a team game and everyone is critical. ... Everyone in our football program has a role. Some may have a larger role than others, but everyone has a role ... That's the biggest challenge in all of sports, especially in football, where you have 100-plus individuals. Getting them to think like (a team), to act like one, to be like one. That's all part of being a team and that's the most challenging thing. That's why I go back to VOLympics and dividing the team up into ten individual teams and each team has two captains. It's also a part of our peer-intervention program of developing leaders. I know as a coach, if these two individuals can't lead a group of ten, they sure aren't going to be able to lead a group of 100-plus. Everything we do in our programs has a purpose. It's little things that add up to the big things. You win with team chemistry. ... You can win a lot of football games that way.