Big Orange Caravan rolls through Chattanooga

Rick Barnes and Butch Jones enamored a sold out crowd at The Chattanoogan for the third stop in the 2015 Big Orange Caravan.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Whiskey and hot dogs dominated the conversation Wednesday during the 2015 Big Orange Caravan’s stop in the River City.

First, new Vols’ basketball coach Rick Barnes stepped up to the stage to rave about the pit stop he made to Griffin’s Footlong Hotdogs before heading to The Chattanoogan, where the event was held. Then third-year football coach Butch Jones grabbed the microphone to share with the crowd what Jacksonville Jaguars GM David Caldwell told him after Tennessee’s TaxSlayer bowl win over Iowa.

“We’re in the locker room and he says we’ve had two stadium firsts,” Jones told the capacity crowd. “We sold out of hot dogs, he said, but most impressively, it’s the first time in the stadium we sold out of whiskey.”

A festive and loose atmosphere enveloped The Chattanoogan for the third stop in the Big Orange Caravan’s tour across Tennessee, and both Jones and Barnes embraced the large number of fans that spilled out from the main ballroom into the hotel lobby.

Barnes took the stage after his new boss, athletic director Dave Hart, to discuss the mass of energized enthusiasm that has quickly snowballed into momentum within the athletic department in recent months.

“The very first day I knew what Dave was talking about. He was always talking about the energy,” Barnes said. “As coaches, we always talk about the culture and what we’re trying to create. His culture is to have the very best athletic department in the country.”

The first-year Tennessee coach, who said he hates the word rebuilding, told the crowd he isn’t shying away from the lofty expectations he developed for himself at Texas.

“Every year there’s a player that comes out of nowhere and there’s a team that comes out of nowhere,” he said. “Start believing that we’re going to be that team. You have to believe that.”

Next was Butch Jones, whose voice cut through the clinking of forks and muffled chatter among Vol faithful in attendance who wanted an up-close look at the guy many deem Knoxville’s football savior.

But Jones, who received a standing ovation before he took the stage, first wanted to talk about what his team has accomplished in the classroom.

“We’re winning off the field. This will be the highest GPA we’ve had yet to date,” he said. “You look, we had ten mid-year enrollees that still should be in high school going to prom. Nine out of ten of them had a 3.0 or above.”

When the conversation did steer back to football, Jones wasn’t shy about how much he’s enjoyed working with former boss Mike DeBord. DeBord was the head coach at Central Michigan when Butch Jones was on staff there and Jones cherished the first opportunity he got to flip the script.

“One of the greatest moments I had was about two minutes into practice our first practice,” Jones told the audience. “I told him I’ve been waiting about 15 years for this and I got an opportunity to scold him a little bit. Everybody on the field started laughing.”

There were plenty of people in Chattanooga laughing too as Jones and Barnes regaled everyone with stories and anecdotes from their time at Tennessee. But Barnes was able to put it all into perspective with a bit of humility among the autograph signings and handshaking.

When he first got off the plane after accepting the Tennessee job, he and his wife — a 1975 Tennessee graduate — saw a billboard with the words “Welcome Home Candy Barnes” in enormous lettering. In much smaller print below it read, “You too , Rick.”

“I understood where I fit into things,” Barnes said as laughter rose from the Vol faithful. “

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