New Tennessee Coach Butch Jones had a reason to be all smiles as he endured his initial visit to SEC Media Days. He hasn't lost a game yet.
Speaking to a record 1,200 Media Days members, Jones was like a kid who woke up on Christmas morning and actually found a pony in the yard.
For Tennessee fans who are weary after the Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley disasters, Jones is finding a comfort zone on the Hill, and SEC football.
“When the SEC does something, it's truly something special,'' Jones said as he gazed at a room filled to capacity at the Wynfrey Hotel. “It's a spectacle.''
That it is and Jones took advantage of every opportunity to sell Tennessee football Wednesday. He went up and down Radio Row, answering questions in rapid fire. He never let off the trigger. He went to two TV rooms. He spent time with ESPN network. He filled every request on his dance card.
He is a salesman, who could be stuck in a job in the Antarctica where it is minus-25 degrees. Jones would look up at the sky and tell everyone what a beautiful day it is.
Jones has gathered quite a number of Big Orange fans to hop on his bandwagon. He has done everything right to this point. He has won the players over. He has recruited when some doubted whether he could survive swimming in the shark-infested waters of the SEC.
“Before we could ever think of being a championship football team, our team had to be comprised of individual champions,'' Jones said. “That's the way they conducted themselves, the way they were champions in the community, the way they went to class, the way they performed in our off-season strength and conditioning.''
The former Central Michigan and Cincinnati head coach doesn't pretend to act like everything is fixed.
As they went into spring practice, he knew they had to improve their overall toughness. He called it mental conditioning to bring them to a place where they can compete at the highest levels.
“We have to focus on the process. We can't worry bout the end result right now. We have to be a better football team and a better football program minute by minute, hour by hour, day to day, month by month,'' Jones said.
The players are practicing what Jones preaches.
Former Ensworth star Antonio “Tiny'' Richardson is an example of what Jones has done. They wanted him to lose weight to get stronger and faster. He lost 12-15 pounds during the spring, not easy for someone as large as Richardson.
He knows it will be beneficial when he faces off against South Carolina's Heisman candidate, Jadeveon Clowney.
“(Clowney) is a great player. He has all the physical intangibles that you could ask for. He is 6-6, weighs 270 pounds and says he runs a 4.6 (seconds) 40. I'd have to see that,'' Richardson said jokingly. “That's amazing. He is freakishly athletic and he can get you off balance.''
Jones has challenged individual players to improve over what they did last season. It's a new system, another new coach, another chance to right the Vols ship.
The offensive line is now a better and more experience line. They got beat up pretty good when they were younger. Last year they gave up 45 sacks.
“Two years ago, they were saying that we had the worst (offensive) line in the country. Now they are saying that we are one of the best, so it just shows how hard we have worked as a unit,'' Richardson said.
Five of the first eight games are against teams that finished in the top 10 last season.
Jones believes it is already a better team than he inherited.
“That's why this summer, our strength and conditioning area has been big,'' Jones said. “That's why I've been stressing depth, individuals stepping up. … The big thing is for us is constant and never-ending improvement.''
Jones will have them ready to play. This season will a great barometer as how much improvement they have made – and how far they still have to go.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.