ATLANTA — At some point in the next 24 hours, Tennessee coach Butch Jones is going to realize that the nation’s lasting image of his program from Monday night wasn’t the grit to hang in the game or the timely turnovers his team created or even a stifled two-point conversion in the second overtime that allowed them to beat Georgia Tech.
It was a trash can.
And if the pattern from Jones’ four-plus seasons at Tennessee is any indication, it will displease him that the hokey motivational gimmick the Vols placed prominently on their sideline became the butt of jokes and Twitter memes, especially after a dramatic 42-41 victory.
But we know by now Jones is unlikely to let this go. Instead of ignoring the noise or commanding the conversation, Jones probably will double down and explain to the media how well it worked, turning a nothing story into a narrative that again exposes his notoriously thin skin.
And he’ll do it because he won, again defying pretty much all evidence and logic that suggests his team should have lost.
“It’s all in how you tell the narrative,” Jones said after the Vols allowed 535 rushing yards and 655 total on 96 plays. “Maybe our program has great character and grit.”
Indeed, judging Jones’ tenure indeed depends on which narrative you believe — and nothing that happened Monday night indicates that will change anytime soon.
Going down one path will tell you that he has brought Tennessee back to relevance after the administrative malpractice of handing the program to Derek Dooley, that he has improved the product every single season and that he has leveraged the program’s brand in recruiting as well as anybody could have.
The other path, however, would reveal that he is neither an elite coach nor a great fit at Tennessee, a combination that reveals itself both on the field (the Vols underachieved last season, despite going 9-4) and off it by routinely patronizing one of the best fan bases in college football (Champions of Life, anyone?).
Neither narrative, though, is 100% right or wrong. And it’s obvious now that Tennessee is equally talented enough and vulnerable enough to keep the debate going at least another year.
“We never had doubt,” said defensive tackle Paul Bain, who made arguably the game’s biggest play to block a 36-yard field goal at the end of regulation. “We’re just cut from a different cloth from a lot of teams. We were made for this.”
There’s some truth to that. For Tennessee fans, Monday’s game played out much like the first half of last season when the Vols won three games in heart-stopping fashion before those small margins turned against them. If nothing else, they’re used to the chaos.
But they also seem deeply flawed, as their offense came almost exclusively from the individual playmaking ability of running back John Kelly and receiver Marquez Callaway, who sparked the offense in the second half with 115 yards on four catches. Tennessee’s defense, meanwhile, needed an improbable strip by Rashaan Gaulden with 4:50 remaining to even have a chance. If he doesn’t get that ball away from J.J. Green, who had burst inside Tennessee’s 30-yard line to put Georgia Tech in position to get a two-score lead, the Vols probably couldn’t have come back.
“You never know,” Gaulden said. “Football gods were on my side. How we responded after that turnover says a lot about our team.”
College football is an imperfect game, and no win against a quality opponent should ever be taken for granted. If Tennessee goes on to win the SEC, the way in which it beat Georgia Tech will merely be the footnote of a terrific story.
But as of today, it’s just as accurate to say that Georgia Tech’s series of errors — including two missed field goals and a botched blocking assignment on the two-point conversion that would have won it — prevented Jones from having a very, very bad couple of weeks.
Which brings us back to the narratives and the images, which tend to go poorly for him.
Though Jones may think it’s motivational to have players dunk a football into a Tennessee-themed trash can when they get a turnover, the inherent symbolism of featuring it on your sideline — and then having staffers hoist it like the Stanley Cup when you win a football game — simply does not project the kind of seriousness and confidence that a blueblood program should have.
Tennessee football isn’t about gimmicks; it’s about trying to beat Alabama, and the 100,000 people who show up for four hours every Saturday think that if Jones wants to brag about winning the Championship of Life, he should do it on his own time rather than theirs.
Tennessee may be a more solid program today than it was for the half-decade before Jones showed up, but the price of it has been tolerating his tortuous cliches and infantile slogans, not to mention the trash cans that will undoubtedly show up in Twitter memes from here until the end of his tenure, whenever that may be.
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But this is what you get with Jones, for better or worse, along with a whole lot of chaos and apparently some pretty good luck.
The bottom line is nobody’s mind changed Monday. If you think he’s been good for Tennessee, you probably still think that. If you think luck is the primary factor preventing Jones from being exposed as in over his head, there is just as much or more evidence to support that today was there was before the season.
But get used to the chaos, Tennessee fans, because Jones seems to have a knack for inviting it. And maybe if he wins of enough of these, he can finally put all those narratives he doesn’t like in … the trash.