Friday, December 07, 2012

Rejected by dog, Tennessee hires man

By Thursday night, I was pretty sure Tennessee's coaching search was gonna end with Dave Hart getting tarred and feathered and Tyler Bray getting promoted to player/coach by democratic vote for the pure, 100 percent Colombian entertainment value. There was a poll on SB Nation site Rocky Top Talk that asked the question "Who should be Tennessee's next coach?" and had tallied the following results:
9 % -- Butch Davis (259 votes)
12% -- Larry Fedora (329 votes)
29% -- Phillip Fulmer (775 votes)
5% -- Butch Jones (152 votes)
9% -- Jim Mora (246 votes)
21% -- Bobby Petrino (573 votes)
12% -- Kirby Smart (323 votes) 12%
WUT. The guy who was leading that poll is currently 62, got fired four years ago after two sub-.500 seasons in his last four and has gotten legitimate interest from literally zero other schools since then. Again: That's the guy who was leading a fan poll asking "Who should be Tennessee's next coach?" I'm pretty sure that said more about the unmitigated disaster that was Hart's search process (and the accompanying despair at Rocky Top Talk) than it said about any of the candidates.

Speaking of which, the guy who finished last? Butch Jones. So of course:
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee selected Cincinnati's Butch Jones as its fourth football coach in six seasons Friday, ending a tumultuous couple of days for both parties.

The 44-year-old Jones has a 50-27 record in six seasons as a head coach. He went 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan and was 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years.
/furiously types "Clay Travis twitter" into the googles for quality schadenfreude
/discovers surprisingly little schadenfreude

So ... Butch Jones. He's relatively young, he's had two respectable head coaching jobs, he's won or shared four conference titles in six years, he has a career winning percentage of .659 and he turned down both the Purdue and Colorado jobs in the past week. He also had all of 5 percent of the vote in that poll, mostly because his two previous respectable jobs were both in jokes of conferences and his most recent job was at Cincinnati, which lost by three touchdowns to a terrible version of Tennessee less than 18 months ago.

Beyond that, there's one groin-grabbingly obvious question: Will he be any good at a program that hasn't already been established as the best in the conference by Brian Kelly? Because that's what he started with at Central Michigan and that's what he started with at Cincinnati, and that provides some context that makes the aforementioned 50-27 record ... I dunno ... something.

Jones was actually a wide receivers coach under RichRod at West Virginia until he got the job at Central Michigan, which had just gone 9-4 and won the MAC under Kelly. Jones maintained that same level of success for a couple years (8-6, 8-5) before going 11-2 overall and 8-0 in the MAC in his third year, which in turn got him the job at Cincinnati when Kelly bailed for Notre Dame at the end of an undefeated season; it's worth noting that Cincy won 10 games in all three of Kelly's seasons there. Jones proceeded to go 4-8 in his first year (yikes) before getting back to 10-3 last year and 9-3 this year, which should've yielded him the Notre Dame job based on Kelly-related historical precedence but didn't do that since Kelly and Notre Dame seem to be mutually satisfied with his employment status.

Other things worth knowing: Jones coached almost every position on offense as an assistant but none on defense, had a few small-school O-coordinator jobs before going to West Virginia and hasn't in any of his six years coached a team that's finished worse than 44th nationally in both major offensive categories (total yardage and points), with almost all of those teams running a relatively balanced/slightly-run-biased spread that was unquestionably more run-heavy than the one Kelly had implemented. So Jones -- at least based on recent history/data -- is a pretty good offensive coach; he's probably not a great one given his teams' general inability to maintain unadulterated awesomeness after the Kelly years.

And his defenses will be pretty much entirely dependent on the ability of his D-coordinator, especially considering that he referred to himself at Friday's hiring presser as a CEO and "not a micro manager." FWIW, the defenses at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati were pretty bad in Jones' first year but then well above average in each of the latter two, with the D-coordinator at both places being former Georgia co-DC Jon Jancek. In that regard, Jones apparently did pretty well at finding somebody adequate to do the thing he didn't/doesn't know how to do; it's hard to know whether that means anything in terms of his staff-building ability, though, since a sample size of one necessarily includes a pretty large margin of error.

It should also be noted that Jones has never previously coached anywhere outside the Upper Midwest and wherever West Virginia is, which might not mean a whole lot except ...
Hart said at the start of the search that head coaching experience was "critically important" and that he wanted a coach who "knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC."
... oh. "Did I say that? I just keeeeeding." I'm pretty sure the only thing critically important as of Friday was whether Jones would answer "yes" to the question "will you coach here?"

That said, what's really critical isn't any of the stuff above this paragraph but whether or not he can win a lot more than Derek Dooley did, because consistently finishing under .500 at Tennessee ... I mean ... no. Just no.

The bad news: Tennessee is in pretty crappy shape right now. Some informative tidbits: Dooley went 0-15 against top-25 teams (of which there are usually many in the SEC), 5-19 in the SEC and 2-14 over his last 16 SEC games, which good grief. To be more explicit, Tennessee hasn't beaten an SEC team other than Vanderbilt or Kentucky since destroying a terrible Ole Miss team in 2010, which really just exemplifies the program's inability to be even vaguely competitive against anybody other than the dregs of the SEC (and Cincinnati) over the last few years. And things weren't unbelievably awesome before that: Tennessee actually hasn't lost fewer than four games since 2004 and hasn't played in a BCS game since 1999.

The good news: Taking the previous paragraph into the account, the bar is set pretty low right now (at least as low as it feasibly can be in the SEC). Tennessee is still a very good/borderline-elite job, especially considering that the Florida/Georgia top tier in the SEC East isn't raping and pillaging the rest of the SEC to anywhere near the same extent as the Alabama/LSU one in the West. There is some talent, there is some money to be thrown around for a staff and there is still the general Tennessee-ness (or some of it, anyway) that existed for the 30 years before the last three.

I wrote this when Dooley got fired:
Tennessee used to be, like, really good. And could be again. Tennessee is still Tennessee in some regards, and there are coaches who can win there (and win big). This would be an optimal time to find one since the rebuilding job after five years of mediocrity is a lot easier than the hypothetical one that'd be needed after 10 years of mediocrity.
That's the deal. Whether Jones is a guy/the guy who can win big remains to be seen; nobody really knows at this point if he can actually build a program (rather than just maintaining an already-good one), and Tennessee needs to be built/rebuilt to some extent. Will he be better than Dooley? Probably. Anything resembling respectability on defense should result in "better than Dooley." Will he be legitimately good? I have no idea; there are so many unknowns at this point that guessing either way is just guessing. Tennessee's obviously expecting the answer to that question to be "yes," but whether that's a real expectation or just a hope is debatable.

Is it possible that he's Nick Saban/Les Miles/random guy with a good-but-not-great record at a mid-tier school who went to the SEC and became a god? I mean, yeah, I guess, but the resume comparisons are crappy ones since (a) Saban was already widely regarded as an elite defensive coach (he had been D-coordinator for the Browns under Bill Belichick, a position for which Jones has no equivalent) and (b) Miles had been an NFL assistant before taking Oklahoma State from terrible to good-ish (a rebuilding job for which Jones also has no equivalent). So yeah: I dunno.

I think this Dave Hart quote kinda summarizes things:
"Life doesn't throw us all fastballs. It throws us curves, and then you've got some screwballs."
Butch Jones, everybody!

As for Cincinnati, there's no obvious Central Michigan coach to poach this time, which dang. All things considered, though, it's a pretty decent job considering that the previous three coaches (Mark Dantonio being the first) all did pretty well for exactly three years and then all got legit jobs. The Big East's terrible-ness might be a detraction but might also be a selling point since going to the Orange Bowl is totally doable; Cincy is easily one of the three best programs in the conference right now, even if it's a crappy conference.

The seemingly obvious candidate: Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who went with Dantonio from Cincy to MSU and is pretty widely regarded as one of the better D-coordinators in the country. also suggests Ohio State defensive backs coach (and former uber-successful Cincinnati high school coach) Kerry Coombs and Bengals D-coordinator Mike Zimmer, but I'm pretty skeptical that Zimmer would seriously consider the Cincinnati job since he hasn't coached in college in close to 20 years, doesn't have any specific ties to the school or city other than his immediate employment and might be able to get an NFL head coaching job in the next few years based on his current trajectory.

One other guy who's been mentioned: Toledo coach Matt Campbell, who got his current job all of one year ago and is still only 33 (!!!) but is also pretty highly regarded since his offenses have been largely responsible for Toledo's 26-12 record over the last three years (as well as Tim Beckman's nonsensical ascension to Illinois).

So there are some viable candidates, and most of them would probably be interested in a decent job that regularly yields a lot of wins, a conference title or two and a better job within three years. There are worse places to coach, basically.


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