Tennessee football coach Butch Jones, back, poses for a photo with Liam Baker during the Big Orange Caravan stop at the Chattanooga Convention Center on May 16. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Patrick Smith)
CHATTANOOGA — Tennessee football coach Butch Jones faces a delicate balancing act this month while he talks to fans and alumni during the Volunteers' caravan.
Jones is vowing to make Tennessee a championship-caliber program again while also having to remind people that it could be a gradual process.
"Make no mistake about it, we have a lot of work to do," Jones said during a Big Orange Caravan stop in Chattanooga. "We're building it brick by brick, but we're going to do it right, and we're going to make sure that our standard of excellence is in play each and every day."
Jones repeatedly has used the "brick by brick" reference to discuss the rebuilding project facing Tennessee, which has posted three straight losing seasons for the first time in over a century. The new UT coach said some fans have even brought bricks for Jones to autograph during the caravan, which continues next week with stops in Kingsport, Atlanta and Nashville.
The bricks exemplify the reconstruction necessary to get Tennessee competitive in the Southeastern Conference again.
"I evaluate myself hour by hour, minute by minute, every night," Jones said. "When I kind of slow down a little bit, I always replay the day over in my mind what would you have done differently, how could you have done it better. That's all part of being a competitor. I think the big thing is making Tennessee football better each and every day, whether it's interacting with our fans, recruiting, developing our players. That's what we need to grow and continue to elevate our program to its rightful place among the elite of college football."
That could take some time.
Jones replaces Derek Dooley, who was fired after going 15-21 in three seasons. He's Tennessee's fourth coach in a six-season stretch, not including former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's stint as interim coach in the 2012 season finale.
Although he wasn't the first choice to replace Dooley and was pursued only after Charlie Strong chose to remain at Louisville, Jones already has energized fans and recruits since his arrival. Tennessee currently is third in the Rivals 2014 recruiting rankings and has verbal commitments from 12 prospects.
"Clearly we've got the right guy," athletic director Dave Hart said. "We've got a guy who wants to be the head coach at the University of Tennessee. He's passionate. He's genuine. And I think he's off to a very, very good start in terms of galvanizing our fan base."
Of course, he also hasn't lost a game yet.
That figures to change soon. Five of Tennessee's first eight games this season are against teams that finished last season ranked ninth or higher in the Top 25: No. 2 Oregon, No. 9 Florida, No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama.
Tennessee is preparing to face that schedule with an offense that is breaking in a new starting quarterback and replacing four draft picks. The Vols also must improve a defense that statistically ranked among the worst in school history last season.
"This team is going to have to overachieve, but they're capable of that," Hart said.
Jones says he savors the challenge. He says that competing in the SEC makes every day seem like a fourth-and-1 situation for the national championship.
Tennessee remains a long way from getting to that championship level, but Jones believes he eventually can get the Vols to that point. He believes Tennessee's fans are patient and passionate enough to understand the program's short-term challenges and long-term potential.
"I think the thing that separates our fan base from a lot of other fan bases is we're very knowledgeable," Jones said. "Obviously they're very prideful and have very high standards and expectations. That's what you want. We expect to win. That's why an individual comes and plays at Tennessee. We're building a national championship-caliber football program. It's going to take some work — there's a reason why we're here — but you know what? We want those standards and expectations."