CHATTANOOGA — The Big Orange Caravan's first stop in Tennessee for 2016 morphed quickly from a question-and-answer session into a roast between the event's two keynote speakers. While coach Rick Barnes addressed a sold out crowd inside a ballroom of The Chattanoogan Hotel, Barnes saw an opening to fire off on his friend, fellow head coach Butch Jones.
"Look how fit he is, and he has the worst eating habits of anyone I've ever seen," Barnes told the crowd, inciting raucous laughter. "If you would have seen what he ate at Chick-Fil-A last night, you wouldn't want your son or daughter to do it."
It was that kind of atmosphere in the River City for the booster event, which featured a dinner buffet and autographs from the two coaches and athletic director Dave Hart. Barnes spoke first, touching on topics from his wife's background in Knoxville to his recent trip to visit his missionary son in Israel.
The second-year Tennessee head coach enamored the crowd with anecdotes from the past season and how he's able to handle the pressure before a game by being as loose as possible.
"If you're getting ready to have brain surgery, would you want that doctor to come in and look like he's nervous or come in and say, 'I've got this,'" Barnes said.
That loose demeanor clashes with his on-court persona, which the players have come to learn and expect as they head into their second season with Barnes at the helm. No player on the Vols' current roster had ever scored more than 20 points in a season before Barnes got there, he said. This year, Tennessee returns four players who've done just that.
"The one thing that we have going now is we have a group of guys that have bought into a work ethic," Barnes said. "They have a joy of wanting to get in the gym and get better. We're going to need those guys to really set a tone for us."
Jones grabbed the microphone soon after to speak about his team's 9-4 season punctuated by an Outback Bowl berth. The fifth-year Vols head coach pointed to the 24-20 loss to Arkansas on Oct. 3 as the tectonic shift of the season.
"That was probably for myself, my family and our football team, probably the hardest number of weeks I've ever had in my life," Jones said. "When we lost to Arkansas, I could see the hurt and the pain in the young men's eyes in that locker room. The clutter and distractions started to creep into our football program."
After calling an 8 p.m. team meeting that Sunday, Jones was able to start early when every player on the roster arrived before 7:45. Going so far as to retake the team picture, Jones said he gave an inspired speech that helped rally the program to a 7-1 stretch to close the season.
"I said, 'The truth of the matter is we're a really good football team,'" Jones told the crowd. "We just went through the most difficult schedule in college football, and if we can stay afloat, keep our leadership and bond together, we're going to go on a run here and we're going to like our body of work."
Looking toward the future, Jones sees a hungry team anxious to prove the growing hype is real. Jones expects rising sophomore defensive tackle Shy Tuttle back "by early July, late June", potentialyl adding even more firepower to a talented defensive line that features trimmed down Kahlil McKenzie and new junior college transfer and Scout five-star recruit Jonathan Kongbo.
Jones pointed to newly-named captain Alvin Kamara as a testament to the type of players Jones wants to build his program around moving forward.
"Here's a young man who came in and didn't say a word," Jones said. "He just went to work, and he worked and he worked and he earned the respect of his peers. He's also a tremendous sounding board to our football team. He's been at a couple different football programs now. He's seen it all."
The witty banter that enveloped the room hit its crescendo when Jones interrupted Barnes' time on stage to joke about a conversation the two had in the car on the ride to The Chattanoogan.
"(Barnes) said, 'I don't know what the big deal is about Kentucky, because Butch, I'll promise you this: As long as I'm the head coach at Tennessee, we will always beat Kentucky at home. I promise you that," Jones joked.
As the crowd clapped in approval, Barnes shot back in his rich North Carolina drawl.
"That's true," Barnes said, "because he got me so jacked up when he told me that we would never lose to Alabama or Florida again."