This is a story about a man who’s building something.
He’s no day-laborer—that much you can glean from a glimpse of his paystub—but every day he works (often to the tune of 100-hour workweeks) with the hopes that at the end of that day he’ll finish with more than what he started with. In that sense, Butch Jones is as blue collar as anyone.
He grew up that way as the son of a police chief in Saugatuck, MI, a tiny working-class town on the shores of Lake Michigan that triples in size every June with summer-breakers from Chicago. And after growing up in a place like Saugatuck, it’s no surprise that Butch Jones lives by old idioms like “Brick By Brick.”
He’s in a different tax bracket now than your average mason or just about anyone he knew back in Michigan, but as he grinds toward rebuilding the Tennessee Volunteers football program, you get the sense that he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of hard work.
Lyle Allen Jones, Jr. (Butch for short) comes across like a regular guy who gets a sense of accomplishment from doing a job and doing it well. However, lingering beneath that regular guy veneer, you can also sense the dedication and drive that steers a man from washing dishes for a few extra bucks to head coach at one of the SEC’s most treasured football programs.
Nothing about it was easy. The paths you take on that kind of life journey are rarely paved, but every little hiccup along the way hopefully prepares him for his next challenge—his greatest (professionally) to date.
He’s rebuilding a proud program one brick at a time.
The bricks, of course, are proverbial. There are no hard hats and no hammers. Butch Jones is armed with a cell phone and the promise of something more—a promise of both personal cultivation and a sense of belonging. And, after initial questions surrounding his ability to make that sales pitch in the SEC, he currently sits with nation’s No. 2 recruiting class.
It’s still a long way from February and National Signing Day, and even longer until the Class of 2014 laces them up in Neyland Stadium, but Jones’ early efforts on the recruiting trail have already given a new energy to Tennessee football. Six months doesn’t offer the perspective needed to declare success, but Butch Jones is off to a great start.
Before even putting the finishing touches on the Class of 2013, Jones got a jump on the 2014 class with a Christmas commitment from a wavy-haired kid at Nashville’s Independence High School. Less than six months later, Jones has stacked up 15 of these bricks, but it all started with that early commitment from Vic Wharton III.
Wharton is a versatile four-star athlete who was originally recruited to Cincinnati by Jones and could factor in at any number of positions at Tennessee. He’ll start out returning kicks and playing in the slot—at least that’s what he’s hearing from Coach Jones—but he also plays defensive back and even quarterback when necessary.
For an incoming high school senior, Vic Wharton is more measured than you’d expect. He speaks with poise, as if he’s delivering a calculated message, yet still manages to come off as sincere. I have the sneaking suspicion that may have something to do with his family, who are no strangers to the business of sport.
Wharton’s uncle played basketball at the University of Tennessee, making Wharton one of the several legacy recruits in the 2014 class for UT. Meanwhile, his dad, Vic Wharton, Jr., played arena ball for the Tennessee Thundercats and his godfather is none other than former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson.
As a highly-rated recruit, Wharton’s talents will be a welcomed addition at UT. But, even before stepping foot in Knoxville in any official capacity, his impact is already extending beyond the playing surface for the Tennessee Volunteers. Not only has Wharton become one of the cornerstones of the Class of 2014, he’s also become one of its lead recruiters.
“I’ve been trying to work on a lot of people since I committed. I’m just trying to get a national championship back in Knoxville, so I’ve been recruiting whoever wants to come play with us, no matter if they’re five-star, four-star… whatever you are. If you can help us win, then you should come ahead and be a Vol,” Wharton said in a recent phone interview with SaturdayBlitz.com.
Shortly after National Signing Day 2013, Wharton’s efforts began paying dividends. The Vols collected five commitments in just six days in March, including pledges from the state of Tennessee’s two top prospects, Todd Kelly, Jr. and Jalen Hurd.
Kelly, like Wharton, is another four-star Vol legacy who is rated as the nation’s eighth-best safety. Hurd is a running back who currently sits as Rivals.com’s highest rated four-star prospect, though he ranks as a five-star on 247Sports.com and ESPN.
The three in-state stars have quickly become close friends. They team up on social networks to help recruit other prospects from across the country. Hurd and Wharton, who are both from Middle Tennessee, even went to the CMA Music Festival in Nashville together this past weekend just to hang out.
“They say that you’re always friends with the people that you come in with, and what we’re trying to do is build a brotherhood,” Wharton said. “The people we’re bringing in are not just good football players, they also have great character. That’s something we want at Tennessee. Not just great football players, but someone who respects Tennessee and feels honored to be at the University of Tennessee.”
One of the most recent additions to that brotherhood has been Cleveland (Shaker Heights), Ohio defensive end Joe Henderson.
The 6’4”, 225 lb. pass-rusher fluctuates between a three-star and a four-star recruit depending upon which service you prefer. However, after dominant performances at a recent Rivals camp and at the Nike Football Training Camp in Columbus, he’s trending upward.
He’s explosive off the edge, and if he fills out his frame the way most expect, he could develop into the quarterback-killer everyone has him pegged as. However, in speaking with the talented Ohioan, he’s far less explosive off the field.
He’s soft-spoken and his voice trails off as he settles into the banality of a typical conversation. Yet, it spikes with a contained excitement when a topic is broached that seems to interest him. When I asked him about his relationship with Coach Jones, who he’s known since he was a freshman, his deep voice instantly seemed more commanding.
“He’s always fired up. He’s a very jacked guy. He gets straight to the point. He doesn’t beat around (the bush) much and he’s a great coach. He’s a great guy to be around off the field and on the field,” He said.
Butch Jones was one of the first collegiate coaches to see the potential of Henderson, then a wiry end who barely registered two spins on the scale. Jones and Tennessee were inevitably rewarded for recognizing Joe Henderson’s talents early on.
It’s become commonplace for the 45-year old head coach entering his third stop in his seventh year at the helm of a college football program. Not only have the Vols secured 15 commitments from Class of 2014 athletes, they’ve got four from 2015 prospects with the recent commitment of Andrew Butcher.