BRISTOL -- Butch Jones got to get away from his duties as head coach of the University of Tennessee football team to enjoy life as a fan at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Jones, 45, admitted to being a little starstruck meeting three-time Super Bowl winning coach Joe Gibbs before the Food City 500.
“Talking about football and NASCAR with coach Gibbs, I’m like a little kid,” said Jones, who served as the race’s grand marshal. “Just to hear him talk, there is a reason why individuals are successful. It’s best illustrated with coach Gibbs. To get to speak with him, the different drivers and see the intensity in their eyes. At Tennessee, we talk about the mental effort, the mental intensity and you can see that as race time approaches.”
A number of the Vols came to the Sprint Cup Series race with Jones including former Tennessee High players Mack Crowder and Brendan Downs.
Jones, who was introduced as head coach in December, made an impact with Tri-Cities fans before signing day getting Dobyns-Bennett’s Malik Foreman, the Johnson City Press Northeast Tennessee Player of the Year, to change his commitment from Vanderbilt to Tennessee.
“We’re obviously very excited about Malik Foreman,” Jones said. “He brings so much to the table. Obviously, there’s no secret we need to improve our team speed, we need to improve our overall athleticism. He’s an individual who helps us in those areas.”
The biggest question mark for the Vols is the quarterback position after the graduation of record-setting signal caller Tyler Bray, who accounted for 3,612 passing yards and 34 touchdowns last season.
Junior Justin Worley has attempted just 110 passes with one touchdown and three interceptions in nine games, while Nathan Peterman has no game experience as a redshirt freshman.
After the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday, Jones said that the competition for quarterback and all other positions are yet to be sorted out.
“It’s like I told our team when we started, they are building their own identity,” Jones said. “You can see the individuals stepping up and asserting themselves. I’ve been really encouraged with what I’ve seen from Justin Worley and Nate Peterman.
“They are competing every day and I see them making strides from each practice. They are progressively getting better and that’s great to see.”
Hopes for Vols fans are for the program to get progressively better after suffering three straight losing seasons for the first time in over a century (1909-11). After hitting a high point with the 1998 National Championship, the UT program has seen hard times over the past decade, leading to the dismissal of longtime coach Phillip Fulmer.
Lane Kiffin stayed only one season before heading to greener pastures at Southern California. His replacement, Derek Dooley, went 15-21 in three seasons, including an 0-15 record against ranked teams.
Jones, who posted a 50-27 mark in six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, was picked as man to revive the program after leading the Bearcats to the last two Big East Conference championships.
He’s certainly said all the right things.
In his introductory press conference as Vols coach, Jones called Tennessee the premier job in college football, a statement he reiterated on Sunday.
“I believe it’s the top college football program in America and we have evidence,” he said. “Since 1927, Tennessee is the all-time winningest program. We have to get those expectations back and it takes time.
“I understand we live in an instant-gratification society, but things don’t happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I’m encouraged with what I’ve seen with our players. We will welcome 21 new individuals to our program in June, and we’re the University of Tennessee. So, I’m excited about what’s going on and we will get it back.”
Part of the plan has been to reach out to alumni, as Jones recently talked to former Elizabethton star Jason Witten among others. He got excited when telling about a call he received earlier this week from one of the NFL’s biggest stars.
“Our former players put in the sweat equity and built the program. They are the program,” Jones said. “That’s one of the great things about being the head coach at the University of Tennessee, meeting all our former players and having them come back.
“Last week, I pick up the phone and it’s Arian Foster. Being able to really talk to them, to feel their passion towards Tennessee .... It’s very important our players understand what they’re representing on a day-to-day basis and who’s worn those jerseys. Tradition is a big part of the University of Tennessee.”