Tennessee introduced Jones on Friday as its successor to Derek Dooley, who was fired Nov. 18 after going 15-21 in three seasons. Jones becomes the Vols' fourth coach in six seasons, ending a tumultuous couple of days for both parties. The new UT coach said he was taking over "the best college football program in America."
"We'll be working to be champions each and every day," Jones said. "We will be a champion in everything we do. That's not only on the field but off the field."
Jones, 44, has a 50-27 record in six seasons as a head coach. He went 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan and was 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years. He now faces the task of rebuilding a former Southeastern Conference power that has posted three consecutive losing seasons.
Tennessee went after at least two other candidates before hiring Jones.
During the 19-day search to replace Dooley, the Volunteers contacted ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, who indicated he wasn't interested. The Vols then pursued Charlie Strong, who said Thursday he had turned down their offer and would stay at Louisville.
"Rarely in life is anything exactly what it seems to be," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said. "Life doesn't throw us all fastballs. It throws us curves, and then you've got some screwballs. ... You've got to be able to adjust."
Jones, meanwhile, was apparently waiting for a job like Tennessee.
On the same day Strong made his announcement, Jones rejected an offer to take over Colorado's program. He also had been linked to the Purdue coaching job before withdrawing his name from consideration.
Jones jumped at the Tennessee offer. He called it his dream job and didn't particularly care that he wasn't the Vols' first choice.
"I think I was my wife's third choice, and it's worked for 20 years," Jones said.
Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock said Jones told him Thursday morning that he was rejecting Colorado's offer. Mere minutes later, Hart called Babcock to express his interest in contacting Jones. Babcock said he gave Jones 24 hours to make a decision on whether to stay or go, if Tennessee offered. Babcock said Jones notified him of his decision Friday at 5:15 a.m. and informed Cincinnati's players at a 7:30 a.m. team meeting.
"It's been kind of a whirlwind," Jones said.
Jones' hiring means each of the four SEC teams that fired coaches this year has filled its vacancy. Kentucky hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops last week to replace Joker Phillips. Arkansas hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin on Tuesday to take over for John L. Smith. Auburn selected Arkansas State's Gus Malzahn on Tuesday as the replacement for Gene Chizik.
Jones will be Tennessee's fourth coach in a six-season stretch, not including offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's stint as interim head coach in the 2012 season finale after Dooley's dismissal. Phillip Fulmer was fired after the 2008 season, ending his career with a 152-52 record at UT. Lane Kiffin coached Tennessee in 2009 before leaving for Southern California. Dooley lasted three years.
After winning at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons from 1989-2004 and posting double-digit wins in nine of those years, Tennessee hasn't earned more than seven victories in any of its last five seasons. The Vols went 5-7 this fall for their fifth losing season over the last eight years. This also is the first time since 1909-11 that Tennessee has finished below .500 three years in a row.
Hart said at the start of the search that head coaching experience was "critically important" and that he wanted a coach who "knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC." Jones lacks SEC experience, but he has a career winning percentage of .649. His teams have earned at least a share of a conference title in four of his six seasons as a head coach.
After replacing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and then again at Cincinnati, Jones maintained the momentum his predecessor had established at each school.
In Jones' three-year stint at Central Michigan, the Chippewas won two Mid-American Conference championships and posted a combined league record of 22-3. Jones went 4-8 in his first year at Cincinnati, but the Bearcats are 19-6 since and have tied for first place in the Big East each of the last two seasons. Cincinnati's 2011 season included a 45-23 loss at Tennessee.
Jones signed a contract extension after the 2011 season that includes a $1.4 million buyout if he left before Jan. 1.
He was the third consecutive Cincinnati coach to leave after three seasons. Mark Dantonio went 18-17 from 2005-06 before Michigan State hired him away. Kelly posted a 34-6 record before leaving for Notre Dame at the end of a perfect regular season in 2009.
Cincinnati has made defensive line coach Steve Stripling its interim head coach for the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl against Duke in Charlotte, N.C., while it begins searching for Jones' successor.
"There is no timetable to make the hire," Babcock said. "Making the right hire is better than the quickest hire, but admittedly sooner is better if possible."
Jones' background as an assistant is entirely on offense, but one of his biggest challenges at Tennessee initially will be strengthening a defense that allowed the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any SEC team this season. The Vols hadn't allowed that high a scoring average since 1893, when they gave up 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. They hadn't yielded that many yards per game since at least 1950, the earliest year Tennessee's sports information department has that statistic on file.
The makeup of Jones' first offense at Tennessee also remains uncertain, at least for now.
Starting quarterback Tyler Bray and star wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter all are projected as first- or second-round draft picks if they choose to turn pro rather than returning to school for their senior seasons. Junior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James also has been mentioned as a possible draft candidate.