Photo by Danny Parker

Tennessee's Butch Jones at a crossroads: Swinney or Zook

There is a crossroads in most coaches' careers and Butch Jones is at his now. One fork follows the same path as Dabo Swinney and the other less desirable path goes toward Ron Zook.

On Jan. 4, 2012, Dabo Swinney had just been humiliated in the Orange Bowl 70-33 by a less-talented West Virginia team giving Clemson its fourth loss in the last six games of Swinney's fourth season as the head coach of Clemson. The loss left Clemson fans questioning the hire of a former assistant that took over midseason four years before that now had a meager 29-19 record with a roster that was full of talent mostly as a direct result of the elite recruiting that Swinney and his staff had enjoyed. "Clemsoning" was term that took hold describing the struggles of the Tigers at that time and Dabo was a word used more as a punchline than a coach that would eventually prove all the naysayers wrong.

On Oct. 30, 2016, Butch Jones stands in an uncomfortable place. His team that was the preseason favorite to win the SEC East is all but out of the race after dropping its third straight, including losing to South Carolina a team the Vols had a decided talent advantage over even with the injury issues. Jones called the performance "unacceptable" and the masses of Tennessee fans could not agree more. Just as things seem to be at rock bottom it was announced that star running back Jalen Hurd — and his 2,638 career rushing yards — was leaving the program with rumors he was not happy with the way he was used by the staff.

Fans hit social media and message boards immediately after the 24-21 loss in Columbia with heavy criticism for their coach that has seen his team go from one of the least penalized and hardest to turnover in his first three years to a team that has played undisciplined football in his fourth season on Rocky Top. Tennessee had played with fire at Georgia, in the opener versus Appalachian State and easily could stand at 3-5 with one play going the other way in each of those games.

So where does Jones go from here? 

There is hope and Vols fans need to look no further than the first three seasons under Jones to see the product most want to see. Most Tennessee fans would say they want to see a team that matches up with the SEC in terms of talent. Jones has upgraded the roster with elite recruiting and even the most pessimistic fan would agree that Jones has passed this test with flying colors. The next thing fans want to see is a team that is well-prepared, plays with discipline and with extraordinary effort. Most would agree that was the case as Jones' teams went 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. This year, for whatever reason, this team has lost that and Jones must find a way to recapture that part of his résumé.

There is no debate that Jones has upgraded the Vols football program and likewise that Swinney had done the same for his program after the 2011 season. Even then both fanbases had their serious doubts about their coaches being able to elevate their programs to the next level.

What did Swinney do after that crossroads in his career?

He put his nose to the grindstone, made adjustments in his coaching style, kept recruiting elite players and won. He won big and quickly silenced his critics. Swinney, over the course of next four-plus seasons, has cruised to a 54-8 record with a near national championship last year and is in position to go to his second straight trip to the College Football Playoff. He is in a place now that seems so far removed from being the laughing stock stock of college football after giving up 70 points in a bowl game.

If Jones is willing to put his nose to the grindstone, make some adjustments in his coaching style and keep recruiting elite players following the same path as Swinney, Vols fans will quickly lose the feeling that they have now about the three-game losing streak.

If he doesn't do those things, the other path to travel might look like the one former Florida coach Ron Zook took. There was little doubt that Ron Zook was an elite recruiter but he just wasn't able to get things done in the win column at Florida, going 23-14 in three seasons. After being fired in Gainesville it was further proven that Zook wasn't a winning option as a head coach, compiling a 34-51 mark at Illinois.

Tennessee fans sure hope that Butch Jones follows the same fork in the road that Dabo Swinney chose.


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