published Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Tennessee Vols building on brick theme

KNOXVILLE — It all began rather innocuously after Tennessee's seventh spring football practice.

Per the usual routine, Butch Jones, the Volunteers' first-year coach, opened his typical post-practice meeting with the media with some of his own comments before taking questions.

After saying he liked his team's focus their first couple of days back from spring break, Jones unknowingly spawned a phenomenon.

"It's like building a building," the coach said that Tuesday morning. "You build it brick by brick, and that's what we're building right now with this football program and this football team."

Two months later, those three words have become the slogan for Jones' program, a visual image that energizes fans and reminds them of Tennessee's rebuilding project.

Now It's nearly impossible to see a post from the Twitter accounts of Jones and his assistant coaches that doesn't include the hashtag "#BrickbyBrick."

The Vols' 2014 recruiting class, particularly the longtime commitments who have been active in trying to get other prospects to join them, refers to each new recruit as the addition of another brick. Committed players have bricks of their own, and Ohio tight end Ethan Wolf even tweeted a picture of himself holding a brick with "Committed" on its side when he announced his decision in April.

Former Vols who have posed for pictures with Jones and a brick include Peyton Manning, Arian Foster and even NBA player Tobias Harris. Foster was back in Knoxville for the spring game for the first time since his UT career ended in 2009.

Many fans decorated bricks and brought them to the fan festivities before the spring game for Jones to sign, and they were a very popular autograph item at last month's Big Orange Caravan stops.

But what started it all?

Jones recounted the story to the Times Free Press after speaking at the Orange Grove Center's "Lunch for Champions" in Chattanooga last month.

"It's something that I was looking out the window one day in my office," he said, "and I was watching them lay the brick of the foundation to the Anderson Training Center. I'm watching them with the diligence of laying the brick, and I'm thinking, 'You know, it's very, very ironic that we're building this program and here we are building a new facility and they're doing it brick by brick.' If one brick is misaligned, they've got to start the project all over or it doesn't look right.

"Then I was talking to a few coaches that same day, and one of them was Jon Gruden, and he just said, 'Hey, keep building it brick by brick.' I think it was just the law of attraction. It just kept surfacing, and then I thought there was a lot of meaning to it.

"It just kind of took off from there."

That's what Jones admitted he couldn't envision.

"I think it already has resonated with our fans, and I think it's also resonated with recruits," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart told the Times Free Press during the caravan stop in Kingsport. "Butch is a very genuine person, and you'd be surprised how many times he will stand out up on the second floor overlooking the work that's going on, or walk around the facilities and admire the tradition and the history. He just has a creative mind.

"As he's taking those strolls, his mind is always racing about 'What else? What's next? What can we do to generate excitement?'"

Jones has built considerable excitement by seemingly pushing all the right buttons during his first half-year in Knoxville. Former players have been welcomed back into the program. The Vols have 15 commitments and sit atop the national rankings on Rivals.com.

Many inside and outside the program have noted how hard the new staff works, and recruits have echoed a renewed sense of energy that's been a little contagious for some.

Take, for example, Orlando "Zeus" Brown, the 6-foot-8, 345-pound offensive lineman from Peachtree Ridge High School outside of Atlanta who was Tennessee's 12th pledge.

The son of a former NFL tackle, Brown didn't plan to attend a Tennessee junior day until urged to do so by teammate and Georgia tailback commitment Nick Glass and two friends, receiver Demarre Kitt and linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who since have committed to Clemson and South Carolina.

"They were like, 'It's the spot, it's the spot. You should go take a visit,'" Brown recalled.

"I go up there for the first time, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it."

Brown didn't hesitate to identify his favorite part of Tennessee's program.

"It's the staff, for sure," he said. "I definitely love the staff. That's what drew me in the most, everybody from Coach Mo [offensive line coach Don Mahoney] to Coach Jones and Coach [Tommy] Thigpen, the linebackers coach, [running backs] Coach [Robert] Gillespie.

"Those are all my guys, all my dogs, you know what I mean? It was great facilities, and I felt like I could trust the coaching staff. It was somewhere where I felt like I was appreciated and somewhere where they took care of their players."

Since becoming the Vols' first 2014 commitment on Christmas Day, Nashville athlete Vic Wharton has been the ringleader in pursuing others via social media such as Twitter and their phones. Knoxville safety Todd Kelly Jr. and Hendersonville tailback Jalen Hurd, the Vols' two highest-rated commitments, have followed suit since pledging four days apart in March.

Four-star cornerback D'Andre Payne from the nation's capital was the one continuously in Brown's ear, urging him to commit to Tennessee.

"He's like my brother," said Brown, who grew up with Payne in the D.C. area. "The reason I didn't commit after the first visit [was] because I just felt like it was too good to be true. It definitely helps in the recruiting process when you have players or recruits that are recruiting you.

"It's somewhere where [fans] show a lot of love to their players and recruits, especially on Twitter and stuff like that. It's contagious. That's what you like to see and look for as a recruit sometimes: Do I feel loved? Do I feel this? Do I see this?"

Jones conceded he didn't see the slogan becoming so popular.

"I did not envision it to take over," the coach said. "But I tell you what, it's been great, from prospective student-athletes bringing their bricks to campus to our fan base, everywhere I go, bringing their bricks, our former players tweeting and texting me pictures of them holding bricks. It's kind of been a rallying cry of really building the foundation very, very strong.

"It's created a life of its own. It's really taken off on its own. It's generated, obviously, a lot of interest."

Yet Jones wants it to be more than a catchy marketing ploy. He's quick to note the tangible message that the phrase implies. For a program that's on a three-year streak of losing seasons and had two SEC wins and no bowl games the past two seasons, returning to the upper echelon of the nation's toughest conference isn't an overnight task.

Jones' first team will include a new quarterback, a very inexperienced receiving corps that lacks consistent playmakers and a defense trying to rebound from last season's program-worst debacle. The schedule includes five teams that finished in the top nine of last year's final Associated Press poll.

In 2014, Tennessee will have to replace its entire offensive line, the most talented and veteran unit on the 2013 team, and six seniors on the defensive line.

"It's not just a fancy slogan," Jones said. "I mean, it really means something. We are building it brick by brick, and every player in our program is a brick, and it's an important piece.

"Every recruit is a brick, and we're building it Vol by Vol, brick by brick, and that's really what it is."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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