AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes he knows what it takes to revitalize a program that has fallen upon hard times, even though he didn't face that challenge at either of his two previous stops.
"The big thing is learning how to win," Jones said. "Losing is a disease. You have to stop losing before you can start winning."
Jones is just over a week away from starting his first spring practice session at Tennessee, which fired Derek Dooley last November after he went 15-21 in three years. The Volunteers finished 5-7 last fall for its third consecutive losing season, the first time that's happened at Tennessee since 1909-11.
After going 50-27 and winning at least a share of four conference titles in six seasons at Central Michigan (2007-09) and Cincinnati (2010-12), Jones has one of the toughest job of any new coach in college football this year.
Tennessee has won just one league game each of the last two seasons while playing in the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions. The Vols must find a new starting quarterback and replace potential first-round NFL draft picks Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter in the receiving corps.
Jones also needs to fill a vacancy on his staff following the Monday announcement that former running backs coach Jay Graham was leaving for Florida State. Tennessee begins spring practice March 9.
The loss of Graham leaves Tennessee with no holdovers from Dooley's staff and only one African-American (linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen) on Jones' main staff. Jones notes that Antone Davis remains as Vol For Life coordinator and quality control assistant Terry Fair and graduate assistant Anthony Parker have come aboard since his arrival. All three are African-Americans and former Tennessee players.
"Do I foresee having a coach in place for spring football? Absolutely," Jones said. "But I'm not going to stop (looking) until I find the right individual for Tennessee football."
The Vols' problems on the field have had an impact in the stands.
Tennessee's average announced attendance of 89,965 last season was its lowest since 1979. Even Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam recently mentioned the need to fill the stadium to boost an athletic department that posted a $3.98 million budget deficit in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
"I don't think it's pressure," Jones said. "I think it's passion. It's passion and energy toward Tennessee football. I love it. The fan base has very high standards and expectations. That's the way you want it. No matter how high they get, they will never be as high as my or my coaching staff's expectations. The most pressure we feel is the pressure we put on ourselves."
Jones inherited winning teams at Central Michigan and Cincinnati from Brian Kelly, who preceded Jones at each school and now coaches Notre Dame. Jones pointed out neither of those schools had Tennessee's tradition, yet he continued to win at both places.
The majority of his Tennessee staff worked with him at Cincinnati or Central Michigan. He believes they've developed a system that can succeed at Tennessee as well once he establishes a winning culture.
"You look at this program, I think the biggest thing is it needs consistency," said Jones, the third man to take over Tennessee's program since the firing of Phillip Fulmer in 2009. "It needs stability. It needs one vision. It takes time. Winning doesn't just happen overnight. You've got to win the little things. The little things become the big things."
Jones has come up with a creative way to make sure his team is taking care of "the little things." He established the "VOLympics," a project in which the players held a draft and divided into 10 teams. Each team will earn or lose points all spring based on such criteria as classroom performance, community service and on-field production as well as team-building activities.
Jones said the idea originated when he was an assistant at West Virginia from 2005-06. He has conducted similar versions of this project at each of his previous head coaching stops.
"It's the backbone of our program in the offseason," Jones said. "It teaches accountability. It teaches leadership."
On the field, Jones must improve a defense that statistically ranked among the worst in school history last year while giving up the most points and yards per game of any SEC team. Tennessee returns four starters from an offensive line that allowed only eight sacks last year, but the offense lacks proven skill-position performers following the departures of Patterson, Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray.
The Vols don't get any favors from a schedule that includes five teams that were ranked ninth or higher at the end of last season: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 South Carolina and No. 9 Florida. Tennessee fans once again need patience, a quality in short supply after all the recent struggles.
Jones has done his best to energize that fan base.
After Tennessee signed its 2013 recruiting class, Jones spent the next day meeting fans and discussing the recruits at three separate functions in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. He spoke in front of thousands of fans Saturday at a Nashville sports exposition. It's part of his strategy to win back the state.
The Vols' 2012 recruiting class included only one of Rivals' 25 prospects in the state of Tennessee. This year, Jones signed only one of the top six recruits in the state according to the 247 Composite, which averages the rankings of all the major recruiting services.
"It's important that we're visible," Jones said. "We want to build back that affinity that when a young man grows up in Tennessee, he dreams of wearing the 'Power T.' He dreams of the orange checkerboards."
A few more wins would make that much easier. Jones believes it's only a matter of time before that happens.
"There are no quick fixes," Jones said. "The only way we get things back is to roll our sleeves up and work. If it means working around the clock, we're going to work around the clock."
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