Butch Jones’ first name isn’t “Butch.” It’s “Lyle,” which seems like a tough enough name to me. Give credit to Lyle Alzado, the toughest Lyle ever. That’s what I’m thinking about as I stare at my iPhone, waiting for Lyle “Butch” Jones to call in. Coach Jones is a busy guy. He’s running late, entertaining a gamut of interviews on a day when Arkansas is getting a foot of snow.
“I’m from Michigan,” he’ll soon tell me. “I’m used to cold weather. But after living in the South for so many years, I actually had to buy gloves for the fist time.”
Yeah, the South can make you soft, winter-weather wise. Football wise, it’ll harden your soul into one of those rocks you can dig out of Murfreesboro. As head coach at Tennessee, Butch Jones endured the tectonic pressures exerted by the Knoxville fan base and SEC blowhards like Paul Finebaum, who never seemed to appreciate Jones despite his elevating the Volunteers to a level of success unseen since the days of Phil Fulmer. What does a coach have to do to get some respect around here? Besides beat Alabama?
As consequence, I rather expected Butch Jones to be more guarded around me; hardened. He spent the last three seasons living anonymously in Alabama as “assistant to the head coach,” lending his wisdom and insight to Nick Saban while staying out of the media’s line of fire. I wanted to ask him why; why leave the comforts of Alabama, where you’re surrounded by five-star talent and tripping over national title trophies? Instead, I start with a softball.
“Who’s a tougher opponent? Hugh Freeze or Gus Malzhan?”
It’s a dumb question, but Butch Jones offers what sounds like a very genuine chuckle. Turns out, Jones has faced Freeze and Malzahn exactly once – and lost to them both. No shame in that. He tells me, very diplomatically, that both are good coaches.
I don’t really care about Malzhan and Freeze, though. I just want to know, why is Butch Jones back? I tell Coach Jones that I’m fascinated not by his stints with Alabama and Tennessee, but by his developing years at Central Michigan, where he started in the late 1990s in a variety of position coach roles before assuming head coaching duties in 2007. I ask him how he’s a different coach now than during his days with the Chips. I don’t get a very neat and packaged answer to that, like “Well, I’m a lot more patient now.” He actually gets a little philosophical.
“You get older in your professional career,” says Butch Jones, “but the one thing that never gets older are the people you’re dealing with. They stay the same age. They’re 17-23 year old kids. You have to adapt and adjust and be able to relate to them and I take pride in that.”
I’m getting a little closer to the knowledge that eludes me. It sounds to me like Coach Jones just wasn’t fulfilled by drawing up RPO plays with Steve Sarkisian or sitting in an office and rapping with Nick Saban. I should dig farther now; I should flat out ask him what the heck brings him Jonesboro. But I’m easily distracted.
“How did you get A-State legend Ryan Aplin on the staff,” I ask like a fanboy. Jones is happy to share. Turns out, he met the former Arkansas State signal caller at a player’s clinic in Chattanooga, and he really admired the way Aplin approached coaching. “He’s a great fit for our program; a great coach. With him being an A-State alumni, that obviously helped. But we hired him because he fit our profile.”
Come to think of it, Aplin is a bit like Jones was in his days before and with the Chips – bouncing around programs and coaching positions. I could probably walk this pleasant road with Jones, but then I remember why I requested the interview: why are you here, Butch Jones? Listen, I did my googling. Jones had stated how much he admired Arkansas State’s department structure, which included recently departed athletic director Terry Mohajir. With Mohajir taking his talents to Central Florida, was Jones still all-in on Arkansas State?
“Absolutely,” said Jones, without hesitation. He lauds Mohajir’s passion and accomplishments, but he also acknowledges the the passion and skills of system president Chuck Welch and A-State Chancellor Kelly Damphousse. Mohajir is a loss, sure, but Butch Jones sees his departure as an opportunity to find new ways for the program to grow. “We’ll find somebody who fits this program.”
“Here me out,” I say. “Don’t dismiss this right away. But what about ‘Head Coach and Athletic Director Butch Jones?'”
We have a good laugh. I tell him that we could certainly use his insight for other A-State athletic programs. I mention tennis because, well, I don’t know much about tennis. Neither does Coach Butch Jones. We decide to table the concept until a to-be-determined date (likely never).
It now feels obvious that the time for chuckles and giggles has expired. It’s now or never.
“You had a sweet thing going at Alabama,” I said. “Why give that up?”
“I’m a head coach,” says Butch Jones, in the immediate manner of somebody answering whether or not they’re a Coke or Pepsi guy. “I loved the players. I loved Coach Saban. But I have that passion and drive to (coach) again. Running and directing a program, all the tasks of being a head football coach, I love doing that. Culture. The vision for the program, community service, I was missing all that. I had a great job (at Alabama), so I wasn’t going to leave to (be a head coach). I was going to make sure it was a very positive situation. A program with great leadership and facilities. A great location for recruiting. And Arkansas State has all that.”
You can distill that answer in a number of ways, but it’s obvious that Butch Jones wants back in. The sting of having never won a championship at Tennessee was sweet in comparison to being left chilling on the sideline. Butch Jones, who has compared his time in Alabama as his career’s “halftime,” is jonesing for the ultimate challenge – and it just happens to be the same challenge accepted by Freeze, Malzahn, Bryan Harsin and Blake Anderson.
If Butch Jones has become hardened by his experience at Tennessee, it does not show. What does rise to the surface is a hunger fostered by three years of winning national championships while working with college football’s all-time greatest coach. Butch Jones is back, baby. Because there’s nothing he can be but a head coach.
PHOTO CREDIT: Arkansas State Athletic Department