KNOXVILLE — Nobody knows if Butch Jones will succeed or fail at Tennessee.
What is known about the Volunteers' new football coach is his success with lower-tier programs at Central Michigan and Cincinnati the past six seasons.
He has a better track record than Tennessee's previous two head coaches. A longtime assistant at Southern California, Lane Kiffin paired a 5-15 record with a messy end as coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Derek Dooley, previously a Southeastern Conference and NFL assistant, was 17-20 in three seasons as Louisiana Tech's head coach.
Jones is 50-27 as a head coach, and he's noted his four outright or shared conference titles in those six seasons in seemingly every interview the past 19 days.
Yet some detractors point to Jones following in the career path of Brian Kelly, who went 19-16 at Central Michigan and 34-6 at Cincinnati and now has Notre Dame playing for the national championship in his fourth season there. At both CMU and Cincinnati, Jones took over the season following Kelly-led conference titles.
Asked directly about the perception that he rode Kelly's work to his own success, Jones answered confidently and sternly during an interview with the Times Free Press late last week.
"I think it's accurate that I've followed him," Jones said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect and he's a very close friend of mine, but I think that's the furthest thing from the truth. I think he'd tell you that, too. Every team is different, and every team has its own personality. You look at the body of work. You look at the amount of newcomers that played for us.
"I can't concern myself with that. All I know is we had two great places, and we were very fortunate to win four championships in six years. I don't think that happens by mistake, but I can't concern myself with that. The only thing I can concern myself [with] is rolling my sleeves up and making the University of Tennessee football program the best possible football program we can."
There are challenges to achieving that goal, and though the program is on better footing than it was when Dooley replaced Kiffin three years ago, how much better of a situation Jones inherits is debatable. Beyond the typical learning curve with the standards, expectations and requirements of a new staff, Tennessee's team has holes.
The graduation of receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera, receiver Justin Hunter's early departure to the NFL and the anticipated early exits of receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and quarterback Tyler Bray leave Jones with a big chunk of production to replace. Bray accounted for 62 percent of the Vols' total offensive yards in 2012. His top four targets caught two-thirds of his passes for 77 percent of Tennessee's receiving yards.
Defensively, the Vols were a mess last season, and some of the talent, depth and speed problems won't be solved quickly. Two top defenders, safety Brian Randolph and linebacker Curt Maggitt, are coming off significant knee injuries. The unit's collective confidence level is unknown.
Yet Jones' biggest challenge might be infusing his winning attitude into a program that is 38-38 since Jones became a head coach six seasons ago and 2-14 in the SEC the past two years.
"Knowing how to win is critical," Jones said. "Losing is a habit, and so is winning. To me, you start with the little things, and the little things add up to the big things."
It's a phrase Jones referenced in his introductory news conference: Champions are made by inches.
"We're searching for the inches," he said. "I think if you win off the field, you're going to win on the field. In order to win, it takes an unbelievable amount of effort, and that just gives you a chance on game day.
"This is the most competitive football conference in the country, and any day off as a player [or] as a coach you take, you're allowing your opponent to win. I think it's establishing the culture, the standard, the expectations -- and we're not going to shy away from it. We are Tennessee, and that's the motto that we have.
"It's going to take a lot of work, and so much is the mental conditioning part of it. It's the mental part, and it's how you perceive things. It's having a work ethic that's second to none."
Ten players off Jones-coached teams at CMU and Cincinnati are in the NFL, and all of them were rated as two- or three-star recruits entering college. Jones signed just one of them -- Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown at Central Michigan in 2007 -- but his second Cincinnati team had four players drafted in the first four rounds last year.
"We played with a hard edge," Jones said. "We played with a mentality. This past year, and our team knows it, we weren't the most talented team in the Big East Conference. We may have been fourth or fifth in terms of talent, but we won a championship because we were a disciplined football team, we didn't turn the football over, we took the ball away on defense and we didn't make stupid mistakes.
"We had team chemistry. We could overcome and persevere. Winning is a habit, and you've got to practice winning every day."
When he replaced Kelly at Cincinnati in 2010, Jones had to replace quarterback Tony Pike, a 1,100-yard receiver in Mardy Gilyard, linebacker and leading tackler Andre Revels and All-Big East safety Aaron Webster. After allowing 36 or more points in four of its final five games in 2009 under Kelly, Cincinnati started no seniors for Jones' first game. The Bearcats finished that season 4-8.
The 2012 Bearcats featured players Jones signed in many spots. Munchie Legaux started at quarterback most of the season, and Ralph David Abernathy was Cincinnati's second-leading rusher, fourth-leading receiver and primary kickoff returner. Kenbrell Thompkins, Anthony McClung and Damon Julian were the Bearcats' top three wide receivers, and Jones was responsible for bringing in three starting offensive linemen, including All-Big East selection Eric Lefeld.
Five of Cincinnati's top 10 tacklers, including top-tackling linebacker Greg Blair, were players Jones brought into the program.
Now Jones is the Vols' fourth coach in six seasons.
"I think the biggest thing for this program is it needs continuity and it needs consistency," he said. "That's the big thing, and a lot of these players ... they're going on their third coaching change. You win with consistency each and every day and continuity.
"I know we live in an instant-gratification society and everyone wants things now, but we're going to come in and we're going to lay the foundation to set up future success. Nobody wants to win right now more than me. I'm as impatient as they come, but we're going to do things right.
"We're going to have some continuity here, we're going to have some consistency, and I think that's great because great programs are built over time. You look at Coach [Phillip] Fulmer and what he was able to do, and Coach [Johnny] Majors and Coach [Doug] Dickey. You look at what's been built here at Tennessee, and a lot of it, too, is because there's been continuity."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...