Butch Jones is at the two-and-a-half-years mark of his Tennessee tenure. As was the case with Derek Dooley (whose program was imploding) and Cuonzo Martin (whose program was just weeks from a Sweet Sixteen run), the Vols’ virtual yard is littered with snarky tweets, messageboard posts pushing unconfirmed rumors, and cyber-speculation regarding unrealistic coaching candidates (see: Jon Gruden).
Toss in the one-year tenures of Donnie Tyndall and Lane Kiffin, the NCAA cloud over Pearl and the decline over the last few years of the Phillip Fulmer regime and there’s been nothing but turmoil in Tennessee for a decade now. Some have grown so used to it that they even seem to enjoy the mess. One person on Twitter zipped me a note this week stating that if the product on the field isn’t entertaining, at least the soap opera off the field can be.
Yeah. Real fun to watch. Weeeeee!
As a media member I feel as though I could cover the hire of a new Tennessee coach, go into hibernation for two years, and then wake up knowing exactly what the topic in Vol Nation will be — the same coach on a hot seat.
And I’m going to guess that the vast majority of you feel just as I do.
Some of you might remember a time when a major downtown traffic snarl in Knoxville became such a pain that it was referred to as “Malfunction Junction.” Good name. But Knoxville’s Malfunction Junction was finally fixed prior to the 1982 World’s Fair.
Today, however, the whole of Knoxville itself can be called Dysfunction Junction. Malfunction means something isn’t working. Dysfunction means “a deviation from the norms of social behavior in a way regarded as bad.” Yeah. Sorta like sending coaches death threats or — from a media perspective — reporting a rumor as fact and then saying, “Hey, it’s only a rumor,” when people respond negatively to the report.
Amidst the usual Season Three furor, I’ve put together a few Friday morning thoughts regarding Dysfunction Junction and the latest attempt by a small, vocal group of Tennessee fans to give themselves and their school a black eye.
Earlier this week, for no good reason, I was drawn to the 1996 film version of Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch trials. It’s not a particularly pleasant story. It’s not a “fun” watch, if you will. Why, of all the films on Amazon Prime, I would choose that one is beyond explanation. Perhaps there was a subliminal connection between the film and life in East Tennessee over the past six days.
For those who haven’t read it — and let’s be honest, it would take a few million tweets to disseminate it in the favorite medium of our day — the play focuses on the unfairness of the of the aforementioned 1692 trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
I myself have never been a big fan of puritanical thought of any age. I squirm just thinking of my great-great-great-it’s-a-lot-of-greats-grandfather, Ephraim Pennington, traveling all the way from England to join the New Haven Colony in Connecticut back in 1644. Worse, it seems that that the New Haven colony wasn’t quite Puritan enough for my kinfolk, so Ephraim picked up and moved his family to the “New Ark” Colony in New Jersey. It is believed he was looking for a more pious group of neighbors.
I don’t think Ol’ Eph and I would have been very close.
In Miller’s play — and in the Daniel Day Lewis / Joan Allen film — the focus is on religious intolerance. Then, as young girls in Salem begin to cover their own nocturnal transgressions by falsely accusing others of witchcraft, the idea of “mass hysteria” is brought front and center. Devout religious leaders arrive in Salem to hold trials. Then the girls claim some poor soul had attacked them in spirit form or signed a pact with the Devil or some other such nonsense. The religious leaders, by their own admission, either have to believe the accuser or the witch. Tough to win that kind of case when it’s just somebody’s else’s word against yours… and you’re already thought to be a witch.
The community of Salem was torn apart by the event. Hysteria replaced logic and innocent people were hanged as a result. The girls responsible for the deaths actually took glee in watching the executions. So did the townfolk.
And as the original trailer for the film stated: “All it takes to be condemned is to be accused.”
Needless to say, “The Crucible” was a fitting choice to watch this week for a couple of reasons.
First, there is a small, but vocal block of the Tennessee fanbase that lives for mass hysteria. Stirred into a frenzy by some of the lowest-rated shows on some of the weakest-signaled radio stations in East Tennessee, the Fire ‘Em All crowd was back with a vengeance this week. The leaders of this pack might as well be the girls of Salem, screaming, shouting, demanding someone be punished for something. Those who follow along — swayed by the argument that UT’s football program would be better off if Butch Jones were bought out for $10 million and the whole process started all over again with a new coach — fit the role of Salem’s townspeople. “Well, everybody else says fire him, so let’s fire him!”
(An aside: Lots of people call loyal fans of a program “sheep.” But sheep tend to follow the loudest shepherd. And I believe there are plenty of sheep out there who are just as eager to follow dumb shepherds so long as they’re shouting loudly.)
Second, Jones has very much been accused this week. A rumor that no one in town had gotten confirmed since August was reported as fact, even though there was only one anonymous source “close to the program” cited in said report. Twenty years ago, that’s the kind of thing that a reporter wouldn’t have run. Now? Hell, anything goes.
As in “The Crucible,” as soon as Jones was accused, he was guilty. When he called the accusation “absolutely ridiculous,” one radio show I flipped by actually asked if that was really a denial at all.
Some of those who stated early on that UT should make a statement denying the incident pulled a 180 by week’s end — when Tennessee officials DID make a statement saying there was nothing to the rumor — and wondered if the school’s statement actually gave credence to the story. Like the poor people executed in Salem, Jones and Tennessee’s leadership were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.
Naturally, when an accusation like that is made, someone will take the opportunity to settle their own scores. A former punter from the University of Cincinnati accused Jones of hitting players on the Bearcats’ squad during his time with that program. Then the punter decided to disappear from Twitter and take his posts with him. Hmmm. But others former players will pop up. With several hundred former Jones players out there, you can be sure the coach has made an enemy or two who’ll be glad to say, “He punched me,” when “He grabbed my shoulder pad,” might be more accurate.
Next came the Pig Howard dismissal. Howard has been on and off the Vols’ roster and suspended from weekly action too many times to count. He had been suffering from a concussion in recent weeks. But when he was dismissed from the squad, the concussion story became a LIE to the one-dimensional thinkers and mass hysteria types. As if a guy couldn’t have had a concussion AND done something to get booted from the squad. Nope, Ol’ Butch had lied about Howard’s status. And maybe he did. You see, it’s also possible that Jones was giving the best information he could provide while also making sure not to violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule regarding Howard’s injuries or maladies.
But with the Vols 2-3 — instead of 5-0 — anything that can be spun against Jones will be. Punch-gate. Pig-gate. Some-other-gate in a day or two.
Jones may or may not be the right guy for the Vols job. But this week he must have felt like John Proctor in “The Crucible.” Accused and thus guilty. With mass hysteria all around him.
In August, Jones was a star. Most loved him and his sayings and his enthusiasm and his upbeat nature and so on. Five games later and the mass hysteria crew are hard at work building a gallows.
That’s a remarkably fast turnaround. The only other five-game swings that might compare came in 2008 and 2012.
In ’08, Phillip Fulmer’s new offensive coordinator, Dave Clawson, arrived with a rocket ship of an offense. But it never got off the launching pad. The Vols’ lost their opener to UCLA, beat UAB, then lost to Florida (a 30-6 rout) and Auburn before struggling to a 13-9 win over Northern Illinois. The “Clawfense” went from “He’ll get the ball to playmakers in space!” to 2-3 and doomed. (Always chuckled at the “playmakers in space” line. Name a coordinator who wants to get the ball to his worst players in a confined area.)
In 2011, the Vols really did have a superb offense. Tennessee opened with two wins over NC State and Georgia State. Then Sal Sunseri happened. Over the next five games the Vols would go 1-4 (with the win coming over Akron). Sunseri’s defense gave up 37, 26 (to Akron), 51, 41 and 44 points over that span. It was a quick descent.
But has any Tennessee head coach gone from glory to goat as quickly as Jones has over the last five weeks? If so, I can’t remember it.
Reports And Rumors
A rumor is an unconfirmed story. It’s best not to run with one unless you know it to be true — especially when it could impact a man’s reputation or his employment. But once you do report a rumor, it’s no longer a rumor. It’s a report. Even if a single, lonely source is cited, it’s still a report, viewed by many as a journalistic statement of fact.
You cannot report something as fact in writing and then refer to that same thing as a rumor on the radio. It’s a rumor or it’s a report. It cannot be both.
There was a day when people had to go through Journalism and Communications Ethics classes before being handed a microphone. No more.
Everyone Makes Mistakes, But
Don’t think that I’m beyond error. The media — in my view — is a public trust. You need to be entertaining, sure, but the information needs to be accurate. There are times when sources provide bad info or perhaps your process is faulty. Happens. You have to learn from it. I’ve had to learn from my mistakes.
What bothers me is when people don’t feel they have anything to learn from a situation. Regarding the Mack Crowder story, a number of people have applauded the author just for “getting the story on the record.”
That’s crap, people.
Here’s an example of why: “I’ve been told that Writer X beats his wife. I can’t confirm it, but at least I got it on the record. Now it’s up to everyone else to figure out if he’s beating his wife or not.”
That’s not reporting, that’s throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks. So, no, there should be no applause just for “getting the story on the record.” Especially if it turns out that the story is inaccurate.
A Retweet Is An Endorsement
Saw it put forth a couple of times on Twitter this week that a retweet is not an endorsement. Technically, that’s exactly what a retweet is. “Read this.” That would be an endorsement in most rational folks’ view.
Lack Of Empathy
Jones might not be the right hire for Tennessee. Five weeks ago he appeared to be, but not so much now. Either way, he’s still a human being. Unfortunately for Jones — and coaches everywhere — Twitter is so snarky and so pervasive that we are becoming much more nasty and cold in our everyday lives.
In Jones’ case, everything is a joke. I’ve known guys for 20 years who never had a mean bone in their body… until Twitter gave them the freedom to play Don Rickles in public.
We’ve lost the ability to empathize with people as a result. A guy gets mocked brutally. No one cares that he has a wife and kids that have to put up with that stuff. Yes, coaches have had to deal with angry fanbases before and they’re well paid to do so. But the angry people have never had an easier time of putting their rants, insults and gibes out in public for the world to see.
There have been recent rumors and reports that Jones has gotten some increased police protection because he’s received death threats. One local radio show wasn’t buying that and suggested it was simply Jones trying to garner sympathy. That’s pretty cold-hearted.
Well, let me put this one to bed — in REPORT form — I’ve spoken to TWO sources within the Knoxville Police Department who say it is very much true that Jones has received threats. Over the results of football games. Which is utterly ridiculous.
Someone may not like a coach and may get mad over a game result, but who in their right mind would threaten someone’s life over ballgames?
Pressure Busts Pipes
I said on last week’s television show that Jones has never faced this level of scrutiny during his head coaching career. At his previous stops his teams improved from Year One to Year Two to Year Three. But even if they hadn’t, there wasn’t much press at all Central Michigan to squawk about it and there wasn’t much press that cared about Bearcat football in Cincinnati. So you can bet he’s never felt as under seige as he has this past week.
The negativity is nearing toxic levels in some corners. Jones and his players had to deal with the distraction of the Crowder story. (Crowder put out a tweet asking that things move forward.) His players are also aware of what’s being said by some in the media. Hard to miss, “You’re coach is an idiot” talk.
On Wednesday, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy tweeted this zinger: “Pirates have no chance for a comeback unless Butch Jones takes over as Cubs manager after halftime.” Ouch. (Maybe McMurphy was mad because when asked at SEC Media Days in 2013 which coach hired that year would turn out to be the best, he chose Jones over Bret Bielema, Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops.)
If Jones has his team ready for Georgia on Saturday it will surprise the absolute hell out of me. (Which, I suppose, would please my Puritan ancestors.) Jones hasn’t been fired and he likely won’t be, but this one could be a sleepwalk game like Wyoming in 2008. If so, the negativity could grow to seismic proportions.
Same Old, Same Old
Not only is the Tennessee Fire Brigade at work on Jones, but they’re already talking about the salary of Jon Gruden. Again. What more needs to be said? Some folks will fall for the same thing time after time.
And if Gruden isn’t the top choice, my two personal favorites are Eagles coach Chip Kelly and Tennessee legend Peyton Manning.
I don’t see Tennessee having the cash to buy out Jones AND hire Kelly. And if you think you don’t like “upbeat Butch Jones” at press conferences, try “sullen Chip Kelly.”
As for Manning, that will never happen and he’s already said so, but it would be fun to see. Mainly because it would serve as a social experiment to see how long he’d get before the “mass hysteria” crowd turned on him. And they would turn on him. Legend or not. Ask Fulmer and John Majors. I’m guessing Manning might actually get three-and-a-half-years before the lunatic fringe started calling for his head on a stick.
Some Fans Need To Look In The Mirror
The vast, vast majority of Tennessee fans are sane, rational people. They don’t sit on messageboards or Twitter 24/7. They don’t call into talk shows. They’re disappointed in the results so far — and who wouldn’t be after so many years of mediocrity? — but they don’t believe starting all over again with a new coach would be in the best interest of the program.
Like me, they know that the crazy part of the fanbase — a small but vocal bunch — gives the rest of Vol Nation a bad name. From death threats to racist phone messages to petitions, this bunch always manages to land Tennessee on ESPN and seldom is it for the right reasons.
Interestingly, many of the extremists tell me, “I don’t care what ESPN thinks,” whenever I write a paragraph like the one above. But, oh, how they care.
This past week, ESPN color analyst Rod Gilmore pointed out that UT fans were awfully quiet late in the Arkansas game. You’d have thought he called Tennesseans “trailer trash,” as another ESPN employee once said.
Numerous call-in shows and online sites took Gilmore to task for his comment even though it was true. Vol fans were quiet. I thought Sterling Henton was playing “Third Down for What?” in my living room. But so what? They didn’t have a whole lot to cheer about. But they were there. A stadium full of them.
Most Volunteer fans know darn well that it’s not ESPN or Paul Finebaum giving Tennessee a bad look… it’s the extremists who enjoy running off coaches who make UT look bad.
Alabama and Auburn both have vocal crazies in their fanbases as well. But they’re constantly trying to bring down the other school. Alabama and Auburn kooks duel. The small band of Tennessee crazies just stare into the mirror and play Russian Roulette time and again.
To be sure, if UT blows up Jones and starts all over, it will just be a repeat of the previous decade. So who but a nut would want to see something like that at this stage?
Now, don’t try to twist this as “John’s blaming the fans.” I’m just blaming the overreaction crowd. The majority of the fanbase agrees with me. (Which is why we get more viewers/listeners in an hour than any other sports show in the market.)
After the Oklahoma game, it was said that Neyland Stadium would have plenty of empty seats for the Western Carolina game. But the stands were packed. After the Florida loss and facing a night of rain, it was said that Vol fans would watch the Arkansas game on TV. Wrong again. A strong crowd showed up.
For the all the “he’s lost the fanbase” chatter, the fanbase keeps on showing up for Jones and his team.
Here’s guessing there will be another good crowd on hand Saturday for the Georgia game. Most Volunteer fans know that this is an important recruiting weekend. They know that their team needs their support. I bet they’ll get that support. Because I don’t believe the head-hunters out there represent the majority of the fanbase. At least not from the people I’ve talked to in stores, restaurants, sales calls and the like this week.
I was told late this week by two sources inside the Tennessee athletic department that the football program could soon wind up in more of lockdown mode than ever. In August, a young reporter claimed that Marquez North was feared lost for the season. Jones rebutted that one quickly and North was back within a week. This week’s Crowder frenzy left the Vol staff even angrier. Thus the contemplation of a tighter grip on information.
That would be a bad move by UT. People are frustrated and angry. If they think Jones is walling the press out even more and/or being punitive with certain media members, it could backfire. Tennessee officials should know that no moves they make right now will be viewed positively. So it’s probably best not to make any major moves right now at all. Free advice.
Win Or Lose, Give The Man A Fair Chance
I don’t care if Butch Jones succeeds or fails at Tennessee. Either way, “The Sports Source” will keep rolling along. And our ratings are typically a tiny fraction higher after losses. So whether this coach stays or goes has little impact on me.
But I would like to see him get a fair chance to win or lose.
This week it became clear that there are some in the media who are actively working against Jones. It’s their time and their mic, so they can do what they like. But if I were a Big Orange fan playing media member — and many of these hosts say they’re fans — I’d be a bit worried that I’d seen this movie before. Tennessee runs off coach, aims for a “name” coach, gets turned down, settles for someone who the extremists refuse to embrace, rinse and repeat.
If it were me, I’d be hoping and praying that Jones got plenty of time to turn things around, especially as his team gets deeper and older. Two-and-a-half-years is not long enough completely undo all that Derek Dooley had done. Remember, Tennessee’s program was originally expected to “arrive” in 2016, not 2015. A bowl win over Iowa changed the dates and expectations.
So I can’t grasp much of the over-the-top negativity. And I sure can’t understand how any Vol fan could be wishing for Jones to fail.
Only at Dysfunction Junction would those kind of wishes be shared openly. The vast majority of the fanbase knows what I’m talking about.
— John Pennington