Butch Jones, Players Flaunt Big Orange Swag at SEC Media Days
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Forget 5-7. Forget 16-21. Forget Derek Dooley. Tennessee attended SEC Media Days with a swagger that would better fit a national champion.
“We’re going to make it to a bowl game,” offensive lineman Antonio Richardson said definitively on Wednesday. “The thing is making it to a big BCS bowl game. A national championship is always the goal.
“[A bowl game] would be big because I haven’t been to one since I’ve been here. Tennessee is one of the most storied programs in college football. We’re going to continue to get this program back to where it needs to be.”
Fellow offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James has the same goal. It’s bowl game or bust in 2013.
“It would mean a lot. That’s what you work for. You work for that 13th game. I want it not just for myself but for other seniors, even the juniors who haven’t even been to a bowl game yet. We’re just going to go out and try to bring Tennessee back in my last year.”
Despite all the adversity UT’s upperclassmen have faced – most notably three coaches in four years – the three Vols in Birmingham weren’t looking back in despair. There was a palpable sense of loyalty to a program.
“Personally, I thank God to play in every game I played in,” James said. “It’s a blessing. I’ve done a lot but there’s still things I want to do. I want to win and go to a bowl game this year.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business here. I’m looking forward to this season and I’m looking forward to going out there and performing.”
Had Dooley won just one more game last season, he might still be the head coach at Tennessee. It’s hard to imagine that there would be the same camaraderie displayed on Wednesday had that been the case. Immediate success or not, first-year UT head coach has given his players a sense of pride and optimism long lost on many in Tennessee’s program.
“Just how he talks to us,” James said of what breeds loyalty to Jones. “Just how he interacts with us. He has a track record of winning. We just all want to buy in. He’s brining the winning tradition he has here.”
Senior defensive end Jacques Smith said it all began shortly after Jones was hired. As soon as he left the airport, he headed to Tennessee’s campus to introduce himself and his family to his new team. Despite a long day, sleep could wait.
“When coach Jones came in, just the way he introduced himself, it was genuine,” the senior said. “He brought his family in and introduced all his kids and his wife. He had just gotten off the plane. He could have gone to the hotel and talked to us the next day.”
Smith called the moment “touching”. Surely it was a welcome change compared to the coaches that Tennessee players had previously. Privately, that staff was known as aloof, if not demeaning, by players. Jones is far different.
“I wish I could play for him for another four years but unfortunately I only have one,” Smith said.
Smith is determined to make his last year his best. The former Ooltewah (Tenn.) High School star was even sporting an orange blazer to make sure everyone at SEC Media Days knew his allegiance.
“Wanted to come out and pop today with a splash of orange,” Smith said with his trademark smile. “Being a senior I wanted to wear it in the biggest way possible…Tennessee defines me as a person. This university has gone through adversity and I’ve gone through adversity as well. It’s made me humble and it’s made me stronger.
“I can’t wait to finish out strong and give it my all this year as a senior. It’s going to be a wonderful season to be able to play one last time…We have a lot to play for. We have a lot to prove and I believe this will be a special year.
Offensive lineman Antonio Richardson has chosen not to dwell on the subpar records he’s experienced at Tennessee. He’s decided to learn from the past.
“In life adversity hits when unexpected,” he said. “Last year’s team was one of the most talented teams I’ve been part of but we didn’t win. When adversity hits, you become a better man and I think we’re going to be a better team because of it.”
The recent adversity led to the beginning of Jone’s tenure in Knoxville. One of his first goals has been improving team morale.
“We always talk about that the most powerful word is ‘Trust’,” he said. “You’re earning that trust each and everyday. Myself, the staff, we’re just being who we are.
“When we talk about having a family and really investing in the lives of these young men, we really believe it. Our players have been outstanding. They’ve answered every challenge that we’ve thrown at them.”
That’s good. There will be plenty of challenges this fall.