KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones stepped outside his spacious, two-room office with a picturesque view for a brief moment Friday and shared a brief conversation with two construction workers who were taking a break from putting the final touches on Tennessee's shiny new $45 million football training center.
"What do you think of the new building?" one worker asked.
"It's unbelievable," Jones replied with a smile.
Once he retreated back into his office, the workers hardly seemed in awe of the Volunteers' new football coach. One even remarked that he expected Jones to be taller.
Coaches and recruits have noted that sense of comfort about Jones in his two weeks on the job in Knoxville, and he has carried that with him into the daunting world of recruiting in the Southeastern Conference -- along with a "tremendous sense of urgency" due to a late start.
"We had to make up for lost time," Jones said during the 50-minute one-on-one interview with the Times Free Press that followed his exchange with the workers. "The foundation of recruiting is relationships. We're in a relationships business, so we had no time to waste.
"I thought we've made up some ground. Obviously the month of January is going to be extremely important for us. The magnitude of it is critical, but going into this dead period I think we've really made up some ground."
Two hours later, Jones landed his second prospect as Tennessee's new coach: junior college cornerback Riyahd Jones, a January enrollee who had scholarship offers from Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Kentucky, West Virginia and Kansas State, among others.
The year-round recruiting cycle is in its December dead period, when no in-person contact is permitted. It's the calm before the January storm, but it's hardly quiet in the offices of Tennessee's coaching and recruiting staffs. The evaluations of the 2013 and 2014 classes and the current team continue, and Jones will delve into the stack of video cutups of "every single individual" in his program over the next few days.
"Reassess, yes. Catch your breath, no," Jones said. "It's been nonstop. We've been working here till midnight or 1 in the morning and in here by 5:30 or 6 a.m."
It has to be that way, particularly in the SEC, where recruiting is a program's lifeline. Jones spoke to the importance of having good players multiple times in his introductory news conference. His assistants touched on it repeatedly during interviews Thursday.
"In the SEC, you have to bring your 'A' game every day, whether it's in the recruiting process, whether it's making a phone call, whether it's preparing your team or practice or game day," he said. "Our staff understands that, and I think it's really helped obviously that we have a group of individuals on this staff that have been through the recruiting wars in the SEC before.
"I have a lot of close friends that have coached in the SEC or are head coaches in the SEC. We understand the world of recruiting and how important it is."
Knowing the importance of recruiting is one thing, but executing the plan, making correct evaluations and landing big-time players is the challenging part. Jones' highest recruiting-class rating at Cincinnati was 49th nationally in 2011 according to Rivals.com. With the Bearcats, Jones signed four players who were rated as four-star prospects by Rivals or 247Sports.
Three Tennessee commitments said in phone interviews with the Times Free Press this week that they didn't know much about Jones when he was hired. He said he doesn't pay that much thought. It's the body of work he refers to -- four conference titles in six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati -- that he believes speaks to the abilities of him and his staff.
"Coach Jones has a system, and we firmly believe the system works," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "The key for us is getting everybody to buy into the system, and that comes with relationships and it comes with time. Coach Jones always says trust is earned over time, and we understand that."
Jones said understanding the importance of recruiting is his mindset. It's not likely to change, and neither is his style. After spending most of last week at Jones' side on the recruiting trail, running backs coach Jay Graham, a former Tennessee tailback and the lone holdover from the previous staff, has perhaps a better view of that style than anyone.
"Just personable," Graham said of Jones. "He does a great job in the living room. He's just comfortable to be around. You're going in there to sell, but also how you are naturally is very important in the whole thing. He's someone that when I first met him, I was comfortable around him. I'm comfortable around him [now]."
Prospects have picked up the same vibe.
"When I first shook his hand, I knew that he's going to be a good coach," said Bradley Central offensive lineman Austin Sanders, a longtime Tennessee commitment. "He's on top of things. You can tell just talking to him that he's just ready."
Christian Academy of Knoxville receiver Josh Smith met Jones for the first time last weekend when the coach and his staff hosted a handful of recruits on campus.
"My first impression was that he was really good interacting with the players and everything with us," Smith said. "That was really exciting to know about, because you've got to share that bond with a coach to play good. I think he's going to have that chemistry between the players and the coaches, and I think that's key."
The long-term logistics are undetermined. Jones has yet to designate specific areas or regions for each of his assistant coaches. Among them are 24 years of SEC experience, and they have ties in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and the Carolinas, and Jones' staff at Cincinnati made a "big commitment" to recruiting the state of Tennessee two years ago.
The "best of the best" prospects inside the state borders are priority, and each assistant will have an area of the state in addition to an out-of-state region.
It's not easy to recruit against the Alabamas, Georgias and Floridas of the world, but there's an audible confidence in Jones' voice when he rattles off all the aspects of the sales pitch he'll take to living rooms next month and beyond.
"Obviously the University of Tennessee is a tremendous product," he said. "People make a place, and we have great people here. [There's] the tradition, our former players, Neyland Stadium, this brand new $45 million football facility, the vision that our administration has.
"But [it's] also us as coaches, that we're going to be there and we're going to develop them not only on the field but off the field. We're taking over for parents. They're entrusting us with their sons, and making sure they leave better people because they're part of the Tennessee football family.
"There's a lot of things to sell."
Now it's up to Jones and his coaches to sell them.
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 ...