KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With chants of “U-G-A, U-G-A” echoing in his ears, 10-year-old Andrew Jones stands solemnly and protectively by his mom, Barbara, high atop a once orange-and-white checkerboarded (and now deserted) Neyland Stadium.
The final few minutes of Georgia’s 41-0 battering of Tennessee are excruciating. The Vols, showered with boos from an increasingly disenchanted fan base, had just made history for all of the wrong reasons, and the hurt, disappointment and concern were etched into every one of the faces still remaining inside the Jones’ family suite.
Down below, their husband, father, uncle, friend — and Tennessee head football coach — Butch Jones walked slowly off the field, dragging with him the Vols’ most lopsided home beating in more than 100 years and a coaching future that’s certain to take an even worse beating on Rocky Top.
Butch Jones struggled to explain Tennessee’s worst home loss since 1905. AP Photo/Wade Payne
“It’s going to be a rough two weeks,” says Barbara, known to most everyone as Barb, sighing slowly.
Indeed, the bye week might have come at a good time for a Tennessee team trying to find a pulse on offense and pick up the pieces after a turbulent September. But for the family, it’s anything but a good time for a bye week as the “hot-seat” talk and “Butch has to go” talk is sure to only intensify.
“The coaches are almost in a bunker,” Barb says. “They go back to work, the next practice and the next game, and figure out how to get better. We go back to life. They do, too, but it’s different. We’re still in grocery stores and still in school. That’s part of it. I understand that and so do the kids, but it doesn’t make it easy.”
“The coaches are almost in a bunker. They go back to work, the next practice and the next game, and figure out how to get better. We go back to life. They do, too, but it’s different. We’re still in grocery stores and still in school. That’s part of it. I understand that and so do the kids, but it doesn’t make it easy.”
Barb, Butch’s wife of 25 years, allowed ESPN to spend most of Saturday with her to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what game day is like for a coach’s family, particularly at a pressure-packed place like Tennessee that is thirsting for a winner.
“You have to learn to put on blinders and focus on your family,” says Barb, still managing a warm smile as her guests tell her goodbye. “We know the noise is only going to get louder.”
Barb swore off listening to sports talk radio a long time ago and never goes close to internet message boards. Her three sons, on the other hand, live on Twitter, similar to most kids their age. Alex, 21, works as a student assistant coach under his dad at Tennessee. Adam, 16, attends Catholic High School in Knoxville and plays on the football team. Andrew is still in elementary school, but is no stranger to social media. He had his cell phone, complete with a LeBron James cover, by his side the entire game on Saturday.
“That’s how kids get their news now [on social media],” Barb says, “but they also know how mean people can be sometimes.”
The volatility of the coaching business isn’t lost on Barb, even though it’s not necessarily a topic at family dinners. Just last week, she was in the car and listening to music on one of the local radio stations when a D.J. mentioned something about Butch getting fired. Andrew was in the backseat at the time and immediately piped up, “What did he just say?”
Barb jokes that it was a rookie mistake on her part.
“Thank goodness for satellite radio,” she says.
Barb is a realist and admits this is uncharted water for the family after Butch’s previous two head-coaching stints at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, where he won four conference championships in six seasons. Now in his fifth season at Tennessee, with an overall record of 33-23 and 14-20 in the SEC, Jones is finding out that patience in the realm of SEC football gets thinner every year.
“They say there are two kinds of coaches, coaches that have been fired and coaches that will be fired,” says Barb, staring straight ahead and holding her glasses in her hands. “We have never been through that in Butch’s career. All of this right now — we’ve never been in this territory.
“The thing that’s hardest for me is I know everything he’s put into this for five years. The next person that would come in here would look like a genius. We’re so close, but the powers that be are the ones who have the final say.
You can find Barb Jones, left, Butch Jones’ wife, at the Vol Walk before every Tennessee home game. Chris Low
“You have to accept that and know there’s a lot of football left.”
Game day for a coach’s wife is an emotional roller coaster. Barb, outgoing and the quintessential people person, is on campus three hours before kickoff. She plays the role of wife, mom, friend, host, recruiter — and probably most importantly in these parts — Tennessee football’s First Lady.
Longtime friend and real estate broker Randy Golden from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, has known Barb and Butch since Butch’s days as an assistant coach at Central Michigan.
“Look at how cool she is on the outside,” Randy says, motioning to Barb as she visits with friends at the coaches’ wives’ tailgate. “But you know what’s going on inside. She’s just so real and has always been that way. I still remember her calling me when Butch got his first head-coaching job [with Central Michigan]. She had a 5-year-old and a 2-day-old. She told me, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this.’ I told her, ‘You’ll be great,’ and she has been.”
It’s no wonder Butch calls Barb his rock and best friend. She’s the one who has done the heavy lifting in the eight different moves during his coaching career. She has been a source of comfort, a sounding board, even a therapist.
Asked if Butch listens to her advice, she quips, “Most of the time.”
At every home game, she’s there waiting for him at the start of the Vol Walk and gives him a kiss and hug. She also hugs the players as they pass by and make the trek down Peyton Manning Pass to Neyland Stadium.
She makes the rounds at the tailgate, dressed for the occasion in orange slacks. Friends from just about all of Butch’s coaching stops still make regular trips to Knoxville. Jeff and Kathy Robinson lived in the same neighborhood as the Joneses in Cincinnati. Mark Murray’s wife, Sherry, was Butch’s secretary at Cincinnati. Pat and Nancy McGuirk helped Butch with fundraising at Central Michigan.
Butch Jones is greeted by his youngest son, 10-year-old Andrew, prior to Tennessee’s game against Georgia on Saturday. Chris Low
They all gather in the Jones family suite, but not before Barb makes a trip to the sideline to mingle with recruits before the game. Andrew, a slick-shooting guard on his youth basketball team, tags along to the sideline with some of his hoops buddies.
A throwback in a lot of ways, Andrew is a “yes sir” and “no sir” kind of kid, and his elders are all “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
Most of the stadium workers know Barb and greet her warmly, but not everybody recognizes her. She heads toward her shortcut through the Lettermen’s Club to navigate her way to the elevators prior to kickoff. An attendant initially stops her and says the lounge is closed. Within seconds, he realizes who she is and apologizes.
Adam and his two cousins from Toronto — Cameron and Connor Cruickshank — stay on the sideline for the first half, but Andrew and his mom return to the suite. Barb admittedly doesn’t like to sit still. She squirms in her seat, on the edge for some plays, sitting all the way back for others. But through it all, she’s still mom. Andrew wants to know where the napkins are when he makes himself a plate of food, and Barb finds them for him.
The game starts ominously for Tennessee with quarterback Quinten Dormady throwing an interception on the Vols’ first play. Barb slumps in her seat and mutters, “Are you kidding me?”
Much to her chagrin, it only gets worse. Andrew, if he doesn’t have a hoops future, may have a future in color commentary. He sees and notices everything and doesn’t pull any punches.
After one of the Tennessee offensive linemen jumps early, he exclaims, “We false-start every game.”
Later, when one of the Vols’ receivers doesn’t pull in a pass he should have caught, Andrew deadpans, “And you wonder why you’re not playing more.”
Georgia leads 10-0 before anybody can blink, and the Jones family suite is eerily quiet. Barb fidgets in her seat. She’s still remarkably pleasant, though, while playing mom, host and even coach.
“Get him right there. Open-field tackle. Wrap him up,” she bellows as Georgia’s Nick Chubb breaks several tackles.
Finally, there’s some life as Tennessee’s Justin Martin intercepts a pass to give the Vols the ball in Georgia territory. Andrew, sitting on the front row of the suite, stands up and turns around to alert everybody that Martin “jumped the slant route.”
Barb nods approvingly at Andrew’s football acumen.
By the second quarter, Barb has added a light shawl. It’s cool in the suite, matching the atmosphere in the stadium. When the Vols lose a fumble after it bounces off of center Jashon Robertson’s rear end on the shotgun snap, she laments, “If it can happen to us, it does,” and she leaves the suite to clear her head.
It’s not the last time she storms out of the suite in frustration while suffering through the first shutout of her husband’s head coaching career.
By halftime, it’s 24-0 Georgia, and friends and family do their best to comfort Barb. A year ago, it was 21-3 Florida at the half, and the Vols rallied to play their best half of football in the Butch Jones era and beat the Gators 38-28.
There would be no such comeback this time, only more misery.
Adam and his cousins join the rest of the family in the suite for the second half. They sit in the front row in the left corner and watch the stadium slowly empty out and Georgia methodically add to its commanding lead.
The only semblance of life from the Vols in the second half ends with John Kelly losing the football after a long catch and run.
It was a long day inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday for Tennessee fans. Joe Robbins/Getty Images
“He didn’t … fumble,” Barb says, her voice trailing off.
It’s too much. She bolts out of the suite yet again, her face pale and her lips pursed.
Her friends are careful to give Barb her space, but they’re also very attentive. With the score ballooning to 31-0 entering the fourth quarter, Golden is already worrying about what the boys may face Monday in school.
Golden has been there for the Jones family before Butch was even a head coach. In fact, when Butch left Central Michigan to take an assistant coaching job at West Virginia, he called Golden in a huff and said, “Sell the house. Take care of Barb and the kids, and I’ll take care of you.”
The truth is they’ve taken care of each other.
“They’re like family. They are family,” said Golden, who owns a RE/MAX Realty company in Michigan. “This is bad, and we hurt for them. Fans forget a lot of times that real people are involved, families and wives and sons. Nobody hurts worse than they do, but I can promise you that Butch is going to see this thing through.”
Occasionally, Barb will slip into the back of the room for Butch’s postgame media conference. Not after this carnage, though. In fact, she doesn’t even take the elevator and opts instead to take the stairs — from the fifth level.
Butch, as red-faced as ever, does his best to explain the 41-point beatdown in a crowded media conference.
“There are no excuses. There is no hiding behind it,” Butch tells reporters. “We’re going to find out who the true leaders are. We’re going to find out who the true competitors are. The bye week is coming at the right time.”
Barb and the kids may beg to differ.