Sports Editor Troy Provost-Heron and Assistant Sports Editor Dargan Southard sat down with Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones for an exclusive interview about a multitude of subjects within the Tennessee football program, as well as college football at-large on Wednesday afternoon.
Dargan Southard: Since you've been hired, you've advocated for a stronger student presence. Specifically at games, especially with big home games like Florida and Alabama games this year, what can a strong student presence at the game do for the team?
Butch Jones: Well, I think that was witnessed this past year with the South Carolina game. Our student body can really impact the game in terms of making Neyland Stadium a great home field advantage. Our student body means everything to us. To our players, it's their peers, which is very important. We talk about 'One Tennessee,' and when you look at the landscape of college football and you look at the decline in student attendance, where at Tennessee we're increasing our student attendance, and I think that speaks volumes for the passion that our student body has. Our student section saw a 46 percent increase last year in attendance, and that's important. I love our student body, and anytime I can give back or be around them, I love being around them.
DS: This year, the university decided to move all student tickets to the lower bowl. How will that impact home games this season?
BJ: I think it will involve them more into the game. They will have more of an impact of creating that home field advantage for us.
Troy Provost-Heron: When you first took the job in December of 2012, did you expect the program to be as far along as it is now going into year two?
BJ: We have made monumental strides in a relatively short period of time, but we are nowhere where we need to be. But I continue to see progress on the field, off the field, in our culture and in our environment day-to-day. We have made significant strides in moving forward and we will continue to do that, and it's great to see. Sometimes those steps in moving forward maybe aren't measured in wins, but they are measured in everything else and eventually those will lead to wins. That's why we need everyone to continue to help us go through this maturation phase of our football program and support it.
TP: You talked about those strides you've made since you've been here. Do you feel as if you're in a position to where you can compete in the SEC this year?
BJ: That's why you're a competitor. You always believe you can compete. It's like I tell our football team: The team that has the most talent doesn't necessarily win, it's the team that has the best team. Team chemistry, playing complementary football in all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – staying healthy through the long course of the season, but also keep everything in perspective and be able to manage the many adversities that a long football season creates and that comes a lot from leadership. We only have 12 seniors on our football team right now, so leadership from everyone, every class is going to be at a premium.
DS: Over the last 10 years, UT has had big non-conference games against "Power Six" schools, but as of late they've been even more prominent – going to Oregon, Oklahoma, Battle at Bristol, the 2015 opener at LP Field. What do those big out-of-conference games do in terms of returning Tennessee back to where it has been?
BJ: First of all, it's a great challenge, especially when you are trying to build – and re-build – a football program. So much comes with winning. Your morale, how individuals perceive things, so it makes our schedule a great challenge, and then you couple that with playing in the toughest football conference in the country, which is the SEC, makes it even more challenging. But there's also benefits that go along with it. Exposing your players. Playing against really good competition before you enter the SEC schedule. Also, going and competing in different venues. You look at the philosophy we are having now of playing neutral sight games and the ability to go into our backyard in Nashville and play in LP Field to open the 2015 season has really helped us from a recruiting standpoint, but it is also a way of rewarding our fan base. And then of course in 2016, being able to break the world record for fan attendance in all of football. All of that prepares your team in so many ways throughout the course of training camp, but also for a bowl game. What it's like to prepare and go play in a neutral-site environment. With that said, we fully anticipate even though LP Field is a quote-on-quote neutral site and Bristol is a neutral site, we expect those to be a Tennessee fan base.
DS: How do those two big in-state, neural site games help with in-state recruiting?
BJ: It helps immensely. To be able to sell a young man that you're going to open up the 2015 season in downtown Nashville, especially since the midstate has been so good to us in recruiting. We've made so many in-roads there and relationships, that to be able to play one of our home games – I consider it a home game – there downtown is significant. We talk about being "One Tennessee" and being able to start off in our great home state and being able to take a game here and a game there, I think speaks volumes for what we are doing here, but also the importance that we place upon the entire state of Tennessee.
DS: With the surprising news that came out of the basketball department Tuesday, by the time they hire the new head coach, there will be seven coaches in seven years between the football and basketball departments. How important is it to regain that stability inside the athletic department?
BJ: We're going through that right now from a football standpoint. You win with stability, and you win with continuity. Every situation is different. Every situation has its reasons for why it has happened. All I can speak on is behalf of football. We have to get stability and continuity in our football program. That's what we are building here, and that's what we now have. That's what we have for the future. When you look at that, you see the advantages of having continuity and stability. You see a top-five ranked recruiting class. You see a program making tremendous strides in the classroom, on the field, off the field, the culture, the environment that's in place, and that all comes with stability. That comes with having the same language each and every day. They are not learning new people because at the end of the day, every great family, every great organization is bonded upon trust. We talk about trust is earned over time, and when you have continuity and stability you are able to build that trust, and what we have within our football family is that trust and that love that's critical in terms of developing and implementing your program.
TP: A college football game hasn't been played in three months and yet college football continues to make headlines throughout the country with the unionization at Northwestern and the NCAA's announcement on Tuesday that they will provide players with unlimited meals. What are your thoughts about everything going on in college football right now?
BJ: I think it's a great illustration of the ever-changing landscape that is college football – that is athletics in general. It's society, it's the world that we live in, and it's always about being able to adapt and adjust and to make the most out of changes. It's how you embrace change. And that cuts back to the stability and continuity conversation we just talked about.
But I like the meals. Everything in our program is based on the total development of the student-athlete. And so much of it is the rehabilitation of injuries. It's the importance of nutrition. It's about developing and meeting your fullest potential. Everything is about recovery as well, because we ask so much from our student-athletes. So now to have the ability to give them three solid meals and to be able to gauge them from a nutritional standpoint, I think that really helps in their overall development. I think you'll see gains off the field, but I also think you'll see gains from it in the classroom from the nutrition end of it – the ability to recover each and every day. So I think that is extremely healthy for the game of football.
TP: How do you think the unionization effort at Northwestern affects the future landscape of college football?
BJ: I had an opportunity to talk to some of the coaches at Northwestern regarding it, but I haven't really spent much time on that issue. I have really been focused at the task at hand and that's making this a better football team. With spring ball now in conclusion and us going into the next phase of our summer strength and conditioning program, I'll probably research a little bit more, but I haven't had much time to really dive into it and see what's going on there.
DS: Last semester you were involved with the whole band situation. As a former band member in high school, how important is that to establishing a positive atmosphere on gameday?
BJ: It's critical. The band is part of who we are. They are part of the student body experience. They are part of our football family. They are part of our tradition. So the band aspect is very important to us. I've really enjoyed getting to know a lot of these members on a personal basis and I consider them part of our family and I respect everything they go through on a day to day basis – the giving of their time, the accountability that it takes to play in the band, the sacrifice that it takes. They are going through the same things as a football team does. It's all about the team and teamwork. I'm their biggest fan.
TP: You get Tennessee's two biggest rivals at home for the first time since you've coached here. What are you specifically looking forward to in those games against Florida and Alabama or any other game?
BJ: We have to be able to compete and get the game into the fourth quarter and have the ability to win the game, but that's a long ways away. I think I lean more towards Sunday night against Utah State. You have Boomsday, a great event, in town. It's going to be family-filled and it's going to be great for the entire state of Tennessee. All our thoughts right now are on Utah State, which is a bowl team. They possibly have a first-round draft pick at quarterback. Their players know how to win. They have a standard and expectation in place, and they are a very good football team. So all my focus and energy is on the Aggies of Utah State.