There’s nothing Butch Jones can do to change what happened Nov. 17. That’s the day Vanderbilt whipped the University of Tennessee 41-18.
The Volunteers' new football coach has set his sights, however, on Feb. 6 — national signing day. His goal is to reverse a trend in recruiting that was mirrored on the field nearly a month ago.
“Let me make no mistake that we are going to win first and foremost with the great state of Tennessee,” Jones said Friday at his introductory press conference. “We have tremendous high school coaches in this state. We are the state institution and we will own our state.
“We are going to be at every high school in the state and our players are going to understand what is to wear the power T, they're going to understand what it is to represent their home institution. I take great pride in that.”
Tennessee began its search for a new football coach in earnest on Nov. 18. One day after that loss to Vanderbilt, Derek Dooley was fired after having won just 15 games in three seasons.
Athletics director Dave Hart settled on Jones late last week. In his first public act in his new position the 44-year-old who won 65 percent of his games in six seasons as a Football Bowl Subdivision head coach (three each at Central Michigan and Cincinnati) talked at length about recruiting and his aspirations in that regard.
“I've recruited all over,” Jones said. “I recruited the state of Tennessee when I was at West Virginia [as wide receivers coach] so I've been here before. … Recruiting is a people business so I want the best teachers and best recruiters no matter where we have to go to get them. I do think it's important that we have some coaches that know the lay of the land, but I really think if you're a great recruiter, you can recruit anywhere because it's all relationship based.”
He never mentioned Vanderbilt or its second-year coach, James Franklin, specifically. However, recruiting analysts see the opportunity for UT to fall behind on the recruiting trail as it did on the field.
ESPN.com’s current rankings for 2013 has Vanderbilt ranked 17th with commitments from 21 players. Tennessee is 28th with 18 commitments. Similarly, Rivals.com has Vanderbilt at 15th with Tennessee at 24th while Scout.com has them closer — Vanderbilt 22nd, and Tennessee 25th.
Even last year, when the Commodores made a bowl game for the second time in four years while Tennessee lost its final two games and was not eligible, the Volunteers still attracted a more highly regarded group of players.
Last season Scout.com ranked Dooley’s final recruiting class 25th, 20 spots ahead of Vanderbilt. Rivals had Tennessee at No. 17, 12 spots ahead of Vanderbilt. The Sporting News had Tennessee and Vanderbilt at 17th and 20th, respectively.
“You can look at our facilities and look at our ability to attract an upper-echelon student-athlete to come to school here,” Jones said. “You can look at the opportunity to play in front of over 100,000 fans every gameday. I think the place speaks for itself. Obviously, we understand the tradition that is associated with this program.”
If the new coach and his staff, which is being assembled, is going to make gains before national signing day there is little time to waste. College programs currently have one more week of contact before a dead period begins Dec. 17 and continues through Jan. 3.
“Because of the recruiting calendar, we'll have a long week,” Jones said. “I'll make contact with prospective student-athletes and work to solidify a recruiting class, and there will be some challenges involved. Plus, I want to meet with every individual. I want to talk to them and allow them to get to know me. It'll be a busy week.”
It will be the start of a battle for in-state talent the likes of which has not existed until only recently.
"I've worked for a lot of great head coaches and with every coach I've come in contact with, if you can recruit you can recruit,” Jones said. “It doesn't matter what school you come from or where in the country. Recruiting is selling. … It's relationships.
“I've recruited all over the country. We're going to go where the best football is.”