Phillip Fulmer is the overweight coach from The Blind Side, right? Or the guy who wasn’t good enough to keep his job in favor of Lane Kiffin? While these may be stupid questions to a seasoned football fan, a lot of younger casual fans may think of Fulmer in that light. Fulmer ended his career with three 10-win seasons in his final six, but two 5-win seasons in that span—including his last—ultimately did him in. Two Kiffin and Derek Dooley eras later, the Vols seem to have finally found their man, Butch Jones. Dooley had 7 losses in each of his three seasons, and Kiffin…well…we won’t go there.
Jones was highly successful at Central Michigan before replacing Brian Kelly at Cincinnati. While Kelly had built Cincinnati into a national power, the Bearcats had a senior-laden roster in 2009 as they went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, leaving Jones with quite the rebuilding job for 2010. After a 4-8 first season, Jones led the Bearcats to two Big East Titles in as many seasons before heading to Knoxville. With Kiffin, the Vols had re-energized their program and found success on the recruiting trail; Tennessee finished 10th and 9th in the Rivals.com team rankings in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Unfortunately, the coaching didn’t come with the Kiffin package. Dooley, not to be confused with his father, Vince, gave a little more than Kiffin did on the field, but wasn’t able to match up with SEC foes in the recruiting world; Tennessee finished 13th, 17th, and 21st in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. Jones proved he could coach at CMU and Cincinnati, but he is now proving he can recruit at Tennessee, finishing 5th in the 2014 Rivals team rankings.
Not to mention, the stars are lining up to play for Tennessee in 2015 as well. Nine prospects are already committed to play in Knoxville and we are only a bit over a month past 2014’s National Signing Day. One of the headliners, 4 star WR Preston Williams, chose the Vols over Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, South Carolina, and the home-state Georgia Bulldogs. He claims Tennessee has more positive vibes than other programs at this point, which reinforces the momentum this program has. And while most of these prospects committed to play for Tennessee could have chosen teams with more recent success, Jones has gotten prospects to buy into the future. The camaraderie among the 2014 class was well-documented, but what may be even more impressive is how well different recruiting classes are meshing before enrolling in college. The rebuilding process won’t happen overnight, and Coach Jones won’t do it by himself. The players, the culture, and the now-clichéd term “family” will bring the Vols back to prominence. However, Tennessee seems to truly have that often talked about family culture: the same culture that you heard the 2010 Championship Auburn team talk about; the same culture that you heard the 2014 Championship Florida State team talk about…you get the picture. Williams said he talks to 2014 Tennessee commits all the time, including fellow Georgia product Josh Malone. Not to mention, he has built good relationships with the moving parts of the Volunteer air raid: QB Josh Dobbs and WR Jason Croom. And Vol fans: you can ignore the rumors, Williams says about his commitment, “It’s 100%, enough said.”
Tradition, family, coaching, and incoming talent have Tennessee primed for a comeback. While Jones can’t do it by himself, his leadership will certainly set the pace. This is the toughest conference in the country, maybe the conference title will not come this year. But like Jones has done in every coaching stint—it will come.
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