B/R Behind the Scenes: Butch Jones Cultivating a New Culture on Rocky Top

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2015

Randy Sartin/USA Today

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — They trickled into the Anderson Training Center's team room individually, in cliques or in clusters.

But from the moment head coach Butch Jones began the afternoon of meetings with a simple "'Sup, men?" that was met with an in-unison echo of "Sup!" those loose groups fused into one Tennessee football team.

Through the next four hours, they were a single living, breathing, chaotic organism.

The outside world was shut out as players raced from that large auditorium to more intimate settings for positional groupings where cut-up, high-definition practice film awaited. Meetings ticked off at a rat-tat-tat, machine-gun pace. Coaches peppered players with questions at each stop, and they answered, filling notebook pages.

The Vols meet and conduct film study like they want to play football: so fast that every morsel of every second is wrung dry.

"It's defined in one word: culture," Jones said. "Everything is about our culture; the standard, the expectations that are in place from on the field to off the field. Our practice expectations, our style of play, team chemistry, academic excellence, everything we talk about within our football program, we all have the same goals, dreams and aspirations."

Bleacher Report

The Vols took the first steps of a program rebirth with 2014's frenetic finish that culminated with a convincing victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl in January.

A winning season and an upstart team of young, talented players gave way to national media projecting the possibility of a return to championship contention on Rocky Top in 2015.

But those are big things not meant for today. Today is about the details that Vols players and coaches say universallyalmost robotically—will add up to accolades.

"Pay attention, stay focused, stay locked in," rising senior LaDarrell McNeil said of the atmosphere. "There's just an electric energy in the building and around the program."

"We're all for each other."

That oneness, Jones and the players believe, is the biggest change in a program left forgotten following the failed coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.

To understand Tennessee's transformation under Jones is to see the way this business is conducted behind the scenes.

Bleacher Report joined the Vols for exclusive access inside the Anderson Training Center for a weekend of meetings, weight lifting, training and practice to try to find the heart that beats in one of the nation's up-and-coming programs.

Buying in to Butch

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is rebuilding the Vols football program from the inside out.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is rebuilding the Vols football program from the inside out.Bleacher Report

Curt Maggitt remembers the first week of meetings under Jones and the quizzical looks shot between players. There was admittedly a little "who is this guy?" vibe.

"Looking back on it, I can say he was very specific about small things like being 15 minutes early to a meeting, having your notebook open, sitting up straight," said the senior defensive end/outside linebacker and the Vols' emotional leader.

"Guys at first were like, 'Come on now, we're going to do this in a meeting?'"

It was a massive change from the previous coaches. The current staff wants no time wasted on its watch.

With all his slogans and daily self-improvement messages, Jones can sometimes seem like a walking motivational poster, but he lives it. The structure was nice for a team that had lacked it, even if results weren't immediate.

McNeil said that gradual acceptance came because the coaches seemed not only to care about winning but about them.

"Honestly, it's just the family structure," McNeil said. "It's not just everyone for themselves. It's like we are all a family, so we all have each other's backs. Even with the coaches, the players have the coaches' backs, and the coaches have the players' back. We're one big family, and we want to win."

Team leader Curt Maggitt cuts up before team meetings start.
Team leader Curt Maggitt cuts up before team meetings start.Bleacher Report

Though none of the upperclassmen pointed a finger at the old regime, hearing them talk about how much improved the detail and organization are now versus then is fascinating.

Dooley cared about off-field details such as shower hygiene and helping start the Vol For Life program, but the elements of winning football games were nonexistent.

Jones implemented his structure-oriented style at UT in 2013, and the players bought in. Things began falling into place: grades, body changes, time management, on-field improvement.

Those early indications of a program change were enough for many of the upperclassmen to believe, even if the wins weren't present.

"They were a tremendous help," defensive coordinator John Jancek said of the holdovers from the previous regime. "We talk about being accountable to your teammates, and those guys really believe in that and reinforce it. So, that's important to have players saying it and not just the coaches always saying it."

Though another bowl-less postseason followed Jones' first campaign on Rocky Top, his mission statement got the biggest endorsement possible last year: a winning season.

The weight room is an awesome spectacle.
The weight room is an awesome spectacle.Bleacher Report

The Vols finished 2014 by winning four of their final five games, which was kick-started by an overtime win against South Carolina.

Now, everybody believes.

"I think the South Carolina game was very, very important," Maggitt said. "I think that was the turning point. Everybody was bought-in even more. I think it was good for these young guys to see that firsthand."

Now, Maggitt can recall that transitional period to Jones fondly.

When young guys now have those puzzled looks the first time coaches lay ground rules about meeting attentiveness, note taking and other stuff, Maggitt steps in.

"Like he said, it's the small things and inches that matter in a win," Maggitt said. "I can now see a picture of why he was so critical on small things, and I'm making sure the other guys understand that as well."

Details Making a Difference

Tennessee's lush indoor practice facility in the Anderson Training Center
Tennessee's lush indoor practice facility in the Anderson Training CenterBleacher Report

The attention to detail isn't exclusive to the team meeting rooms or on the field, either. It reaches across every football facet in the Anderson Training Center, a state-of-the-art facility that, while already in the works before Jones arrived, has the coach's fingerprints all over it.

It's in the expansive weight room's orange-and-white weights, racked meticulously and awaiting strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson to decide how to work out the team each day.

Smokey's Grill has various bars to help players plan their meals.
Smokey's Grill has various bars to help players plan their meals.Bleacher Report

It's in Smokey's Grill, a cafeteria with specialized bars set up labeled carbohydrates, proteins, deli, salads, recovery and others.

It's in the facility's nutrition bar, where the players have their own cups adorned with labels detailing what shakes they need to help their bodies meet the demands of their positions.

It's in the sports medicine's training center housing multiple pools equipped with underwater cameras so trainers can watch the motion of athletes' legs as they rehab lower-body injuries.

And it's in something as simple as the open lobby that serves as not only the nexus for all football activities, as all the meeting rooms are adjacent to it, but also as the hallway that opens onto the outdoor practice field. Here is where all the trophies, bowl championships, a list of first-round draft picks and other accolades reside.

"Every day, we go through here to practice," said Jason Yellin, UT's assistant athletic director for media relations. "All around the players are constant reminders of greatness, what it's like to be great."

Here's the wall of former Vols who were first-round draft picks.
Here's the wall of former Vols who were first-round draft picks.Bleacher Report

Though they're surrounded by excellence, that's a level these Vols know they haven't yet reached.

There's a hunger to get there, and Jones sees it where he hasn't before. Last summer when B/R sat down in his office to discuss the state of the program, Jones talked about how far away the program was.

It's closer now, and it directly affects the way the team feels about stepping in the complex each day.

"I do see that belief," Jones said. "That's born through confidence in finally some results but also confidence in the work ethic and the environment. There's an expectation, there's a standard, and we have competitive individuals now in our football program.

"We have individuals who take great pride in performance, in being here, and, again, they understand the culture, standards and expectations now.

"Are we there yet? No. We have to continue to make monumental strides, but I can tell you this: I have never looked more forward every day to coming to work for spring football than I have with this football team."

The Arrival of Accountability

Defensive line coach Steve Stripling addresses his players in the D-line meeting.
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling addresses his players in the D-line meeting.Bleacher Report

In the defensive line session, highlights are greeted with "Oooohs" from the players, along with constant running commentary from coach Steve Stripling. Prior to each play, screams of nonsensical words fill the room as players make calls as if they were on the field.

During a lull in the on-screen action, tangential discussions veer from football for a few minutes. Stripling lets it go on for a few moments before calling on junior defensive tackle Danny O'Brien to calm the room. "Meeting room attention!" O'Brien shouts, and everybody shuts up and zones in.

"The only talking I want to hear occurring is from younger guys sitting next to older guys," Stripling said. "Teaching points, all right?"

It doesn't take long for an ideal illustration of this to manifest.

A nearly perfect play by freshman defensive end Andrew Butcher flashes across the projected screen. He flushes quarterback Joshua Dobbs out of the pocket to the right. With nobody open, Dobbs just throws it away, a win for the defense.

"Hand up, Butch! Get your hand up!" shouts Maggitt from the back of the room.

It turns out that the play, while productive, wasn't perfect. As Butcher strings out Dobbs toward the sideline, he is supposed to have his right hand up, guarding against a potential across-the-body pass attempt. Maggitt notices it immediately and points it out.

Butcher turns around and pays attention, nodding his head at the elder player. This interlude isn't interrupting the meeting; Stripling loves it.

When told of the episode, Jones does, too.

"In this league, it's all about split-second decisions, and it's the little things that add up to the big things that everyone sees and wants," Jones said. "That right there, you just defined our culture when you saw that. That's Curt Maggitt taking ownership in helping teach and coach a young freshman. Yeah, you made a good play, but you're supposed to mirror the off hand of the quarterback.

"So, I think that kind of defines everything we're kind of in continuation of building."

Tennessee's quarterbacks break from the meeting room as new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord (right) wraps up.
Tennessee's quarterbacks break from the meeting room as new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord (right) wraps up.Bleacher Report

Tennessee's football meetings are a mixture of interactive teaching, business and fun. Coaches aren't there to present. Instead, they ask questions to the players, and the vast majority of the time while B/R observed, they answered correctly.

It wasn't uncommon for a player to get hammered for something he did wrong one minute and praised in the next.

At one point during the quarterbacks meeting, new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord showed a particular play, rewinding it several times.

"Right now, what are you thinking?" DeBord asked freshman Quinten Dormady. The quarterback began to answer, hesitant, pausing when he perhaps internally mistook silence as a reaction to an incorrect response.

"I'm asking," DeBord told him, "keep talking."

Once Dormady finished his answer, DeBord nodded, "There ya go!"

"It starts from the top down," Maggitt said of the vibe around team meetings. "Our coaches are accountable to one another, and we feed off that, and I think the hardest thing about players being accountable to one another is that line of respect where it's not like I'm trying to pick on you or criticize your work, but I want it for the betterment of the team.

"[This concept is] fairly new in our program. I think our meetings are very interactive from player to player, coach to player and player to coach. That camaraderie and that respect is all around for everyone in the room. We know we've got one goal, and we know there's a standard. When play is not met to that standard, in the past, I think people were a little bit shy to say something about it, but I think it's real good that now we can talk to one another and hold each other accountable."

Along with accountability, however, Maggitt said the second-most important change in this regime from the last is relationships. The word "family" was thrown around by most. But it isn't just lip service.

As players milled around between meetings, eight-year-old Andrew Jones, out of school for Good Friday, roamed the hallways. Butch Jones' youngest was born just three days before he accepted the head coaching job at Central Michigan University.

College football can be hard on families when you're accountable for nearly 100 young men. So, Jones brings his family to college football. It makes it more fun to let life seep into the business sometimes.

That family atmosphere bleeds into the team meetings as well.

Moments after dishing a hefty helping of constructive criticism to his team, Jones broke into a praise session with candy bar rewards. For good plays, Jones tossed Mr. Goodbars and PayDays. Nestle Crunches were handed out for big hits.

When Stripling later tosses a candy bar to Butcher in the defensive line meeting for making a good play, he asks, "You gonna eat it?"

"No," Butcher answers. "Why?" Stripling asked with a small smile.

"Linemen don't eat candy," Butcher said.

Somebody yells from the back of the room, "Weatherd's the candy man! Give it to him," referring to the 217-pound converted outside linebacker, Chris Weatherd, who'll need to add weight to play on the defensive line this fall.

Everybody laughs. It's a refreshing reminder for these kids that learning can be laced with levity.

The End of the Beginning

Receiver Josh Malone is one of several Vols youngsters who've drawn praise this spring.
Receiver Josh Malone is one of several Vols youngsters who've drawn praise this spring.Bleacher Report

Lighthearted moments don't mean the Vols have lost sight of ultimate goals.

They're listed in the meeting rooms, and there are allusions to them throughout every conversation. But they ultimately boil down to one thing: returning Tennessee to competing for championships.

Nobody believes the Vols are a finished product, but the excitement to see just how far they've come is palpable. Finally, there's a chance the team could do big things in 2015.

"I think that drives us every day, and it gives us a great energy around the building like every single day, every practice, just knowing we can go out there and compete with great teams, other SEC teams," McNeil said. "That's what motivates us every day."

The end of the 2014 season felt like the beginning of something big. It wasn't just in the way the Vols won, according to Maggitt, but the feeling that they shared once the 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl dismantling of Iowa was complete.

"We played pretty well toward the end of the season, and a lot of guys, myself included, we wish we could have had that mindset or playing that way throughout the whole season, and now we know what a little bit of success feels like," he said. "I know we're not to our goal yet, but we know what it feels like a little bit.

"So we've got to keep that momentum rolling through the offseason and training camp."

Jones spends countless hours critiquing himself and his team to find ways to do that. It's almost obsessive how each day—each minuteis accounted for.

When the schedule deviates, it's normally because they're striving to perfect something before moving on.

The trophy from the 1998 Fiesta Bowl, where the Vols won the national championship, is a constant reminder of greatness.
The trophy from the 1998 Fiesta Bowl, where the Vols won the national championship, is a constant reminder of greatness.Bleacher Report

Restoring Tennessee drives Jones. Sometimes, the bags under his eyes are dead giveaways of sleep deprivation, and his hoarse voice is a constant companion from spending countless words teaching, correcting, perfecting.

The Vols aren't where their coach wants to be, but the naked truth is they never will be.

Perhaps that's what Tennessee fans should take away most from that steady, rapid heartbeat of the program.

Jones knows he can't let it stop beating.

"It's an inner drive to be great at everything you do," Jones said. "My worst fear as a head coach is you're always fighting human nature, and it's complacency. Complacency is a human condition. It's about keeping things focused on the task at hand, but you have to take the emotion out of it every day.

"When I go to bed at night, the last thing I do when I lay my head down on my pillow is I say, 'If I had the day to do over again, how would I do it differently? Did I get the most out of the day?' It's a constant evaluation process of yourself, your coaches, your players and your overall program. Leaders are driven that way, but they're also driven by doing things the right way.

"Like, I know we're nowhere near where we need to be as a football program or where we want to be, but we're getting there. I'm as impatient as anybody. I want things right now, just like our fanbase. But also I know the things we want that last over time take time. You don't fix six, seven, eight, nine years in one or two or three years. It's a course-of-time thing. Things that are built to last take time."

From the inside out, Tennessee is building for the long haul.

Bleacher Report

Quotes and observations obtained firsthand. Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.


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