Tennessee tops among rebuilding projects

Butch Jones and the 4-3 Volunteers have made major strides this season. AP Photo/Wade Payne

Earlier this week, Tennessee’s Butch Jones walked into the team’s training room. A small group of players didn’t notice the head coach’s entrance, and Jones overheard one of the Volunteers reminding teammates not to be late for a team meeting later that day.

That might not sound like much, Jones said, but to him it was a gratifying illustration of progress. That’s the nature of a rebuild: the small things, like that scene in the training room, eventually accumulate to become one big shift in attitude and culture.

“We make strides each and every day,” said Jones, whose infectious and consistent positivity has been central to those strides.

Jones, the 45-year-old whom UT hired from Cincinnati, has instituted all sorts of inspirational actions and rhetoric, but perhaps none more resounding than the “brick-by-brick” mantra. He has even gone so far as to reward players with actual bricks, to drive home the message.

No, the program Jones is working to construct at Tennessee isn’t going up overnight. He has been careful with that message, noting that the players understand it's a grind to build. Jones also is conscious of that fact that it’s a universal sort of makeover, one that extends to the classroom, meeting rooms, weight room and beyond.

Maybe it’s just because it’s Alabama week, but Jones even used Nick Saban’s term “process” to describe the overall plan. But the football field, quite clearly, is where things will be measured and sometimes scrutinized.

That’s why getting a signature, hang-your-hat-on sort of win in Year 1 -- like last week’s victory over then-No. 11 South Carolina -- is crucially important for attitude adjustment.

“Are we making progress? Yes, I definitely can see that,” Jones told me Tuesday. “We’re generating momentum. I think around the country, they know there’s an energy here. They know there’s a buzz.”

Tennessee leads our look at five programs in Year 1 of rebuilding projects. A couple of other SEC programs, a Pac-12 school and an ACC school are also included.