Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, right, talks with Tennessee football coach Butch Jones during the Vols’ practice Wednesday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/University of Tennessee Athletics, Donald Page)
KNOXVILLE — Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is pulling for Butch Jones and the Volunteers, so he dropped by Knoxville to talk with the football team.
Spoelstra and Jones are friends and the Heat coach visited Tennessee’s training camp Wednesday. Jones believes his Volunteers can take inspiration from the coach of the defending NBA champions.
“He’s a great friend, and I’m really indebted,” Jones said. “He doesn’t have much time off. For him to come to Knoxville and spend an entire day with our football program means a lot.”
Spoelstra arrived on campus in time to watch the final stages of Wednesday morning’s practice, but did not speak with reporters. He was scheduled to meet with the team Wednesday afternoon. Players left the morning practice wearing T-shirts with the message “Championship Wednesday” and logos of Tennessee and the Heat.
“My first reaction was he’s taller than I thought he was,” linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. “I guess when you’re around 7-footers, you don’t look as tall as you really are.”
Jones said his friendship with Spoelstra goes back two years, but this marked the first time the Heat coach had visited one of his teams. They got to know each other by having the same agent, Trace Armstrong.
“He’s been a great resource for me, to be able to watch him really have the success he’s had,” Jones said. “I’ll tell you this, there’s nobody more deserving than Erik Spoelstra. The work that he’s done, he’s always tried to be different, always has tried to stay one step ahead of the game. I think that’s what makes him special.”
But even after Jones attended Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June, some Tennessee players figured he was exaggerating the extent of his friendship with Spoelstra. Sapp and wide receiver Jacob Carter said Jones often mentions Spoelstra while talking to his team.
“Everybody was peeking and whispering like, ‘He (doesn’t) know Erik Spoelstra. You’re just Coach Jones,’ ” Sapp said.
They don’t doubt him anymore.
“I kind of didn’t believe it, but he put it in stone,” wide receiver Devrin Young said. “The man’s here, so you’d better believe” Jones.
Jones believes Spoelstra’s ability to help the Heat win back-to-back championships should serve as an example for the Vols as they attempt to bounce back from three straight losing seasons.
“There are so many similarities,” Jones said. “The building of the Miami Heat, everyone remembers right now. Everyone remembers the last two years. But a lot of people forget the building process that went (into) that. Prior to his first year with the Miami Heat, they won 15 games. He’s going to talk about the building process, building it brick by brick and building the culture and structure it takes to be successful like they have at Miami.”
Recruiting plays a factor in both cases.
The Heat started contending for championships under Spoelstra after signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-signing Dwyane Wade. Jones has inherited a roster with enough holes at key spots to force freshmen into major roles.
Jones has attempted to restock Tennessee’s roster by putting together a 2014 recruiting class that is considered among the nation’s best thus far. Tennessee’s current players believe Jones’ ability to bring an NBA championship coach to campus should help those recruiting efforts even more.
“I see it as bragging rights,” Young said. “I feel like my coach is cooler than yours.”