KNOXVILLE, TN (AP) – Tennessee fired coach Butch Jones on Sunday with two games left in a regular season in which the Volunteers started ranked but are now still winless in the Southeastern Conference.
Vols athletic director John Currie said defensive line coach Brady Hoke would serve as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. The move has seemed almost inevitable for weeks.
“Unfortunately, we are not where we need to be competitively,” Currie said in a statement. “For that reason, I have asked Coach Jones to step down as head football coach. I know Coach Jones will be successful moving forward, and we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
Jones went 34-27 overall and 14-24 in the SEC over five seasons. He led the Vols to bowl victories each of the last three years before the program took a giant step backward this fall.
Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) has dropped five of its last six games, including a 50-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday.
Jones was making $4.1 million annually and has a contract that runs through Feb. 28, 2021. His buyout states that if he’s fired without cause, Tennessee would owe him over $8 million. That figure could be mitigated if he does land another position.
Jones inherited a program that had posted three straight losing seasons under coach Derek Dooley. The Vols went 5-7 for a fourth straight losing season in Jones’ debut year but followed that up by going 7-6 in 2014 and posting consecutive 9-4 finishes the last two years.
Jones restocked the talent base by upgrading Tennessee’s recruiting, but he couldn’t get the Vols an SEC East title even during an era when rivals Florida and Georgia have been in transition.
Tennessee hasn’t reached the SEC championship game since 2007 and hasn’t won a conference title since its 1998 national championship season. Tennessee was picked to win the East last year but stumbled after a 5-0 start.
The Vols’ late-season fade in 2016 turned up the heat on Jones. But Currie said before the season that he thought Jones had done “a marvelous job” in his first four seasons.
Then everything went south this year.
Tennessee, which opened the season ranked 25th, has lost its first six SEC games by an average margin of 21.2 points. That stretch includes a 41-0 loss to Georgia that marked the Vols’ most lopsided home defeat since 1905. One month later, Tennessee lost 29-26 at Kentucky, which represented just the second time the Vols had fallen to the Wildcats in their last 33 meetings.
Injuries played a major role in Jones’ demise.
Tennessee’s top returning receiver (Jauan Jennings), top returning linebacker (Darrin Kirkland Jr.) and top returning tackler (Todd Kelly Jr.) all had suffered season-ending injuries by mid-September. By the end of the Missouri game, Tennessee had only five available scholarship offensive linemen, including two true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen. Injuries to quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano and Quinten Dormady caused freshman Will McBride to make his first career start Saturday.
As Tennessee’s struggles continued, the criticism of Jones mounted.
Fans who loved Jones’ constant references to the “Brick by Brick” approach of building a program when he first arrived at Tennessee started to mock his frequent use of clichés and catchphrases.
His most notable misstep in that regard came last year when he referred to his senior class as “champions of life” two days after the Vols were eliminated from East Division championship contention. Tennessee lost at Vanderbilt later that week, and the “champions of life” remark turned into an internet meme.
Jones did enable Tennessee to make some notable advances
Under Jones’ watch, Tennessee’s football program dramatically improved its Academic Progress Rate, which had been so low at the start of his tenure that the school was at risk of facing penalties. Tennessee’s average home attendance climbed from 89,965 the year before Jones’ arrival to 100,968 last season. Attendance is at 98,090 so far this year.
“The Jones family has poured their heart and soul into this Tennessee football program and the Knoxville community,” Currie said. “We have been fortunate to have Coach Jones lead our program for the last five years. During that time, the program has improved tremendously in the areas of academics, discipline and community involvement.”
The major off-field issue during Jones’ tenure was a Title IX lawsuit filed against the school last year by eight unidentified women accusing Tennessee of having a “hostile sexual environment” through a policy of indifference toward assaults by athletes. The suit was settled for $2.48 million in July 2016.
Jones owns an overall record of 84-54. He coached three seasons each at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before coming to Tennessee.