From Saugatuck, to Rocky Top
Jones’ former high school mentors praise his mental toughness
For Tennessee fans, Oct. 4, 2014, will always be a day drenched in disappointment.
It was supposed to be the day the Vols finally defeated their most hated rival. Instead, the day ended with the Gators claiming their tenth-straight victory over the Vols. A day that was supposed to be heralded for the fan-initiated checkerboard in Neyland Stadium was remembered for a vulgar chant from Vols’ fans in the waning seconds of yet another heartbreaking loss to Florida.
That day was the lowest point of the season for Tennessee fans.
Yet, if the 10–9 loss to Florida was rough on the fans, it was especially difficult for Tennessee’s head coach.
“If you were to say, ‘give me one defining moment (of a difficult situation)’ that was after the Florida game,” Butch Jones said in an interview with the Daily Beacon. “Obviously, we were all disappointed, everyone in our football organization was extremely disappointed. But you couldn’t allow the outside noises to creep in.”
Butch Jones and his football team ultimately tuned out those outside noises, winning three of their last four games to earn bowl eligibility. Tennessee’s first trip to the postseason since 2010 culminated in a dominant 45–28 victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer bowl.
According to Jones, the Vols’ mental toughness allowed them to overcome the Florida loss.
“I knew with team 118 that if we kept our composure, kept our focus, if we were able to persevere and show resiliency, our efforts eventually would be rewarded and they were rewarded on Jan. 2nd. I think all of that was very important and that will be a great illustration for many years to come.
“But it’s all part of the business. You have to be mentally tough to be able to block all that out and be able to focus and put all your attention in the development of the football program.”
Jones is right.
Mental toughness is an attribute all teams need. It allows the players to remain focused on their jobs while enduring intense scrutiny from outside parties like fans and the media. It offers the tools to solve various problems that arise in a football program during the season’s course.
It’s safe to assume that the 2014 Tennessee football team acquired its mentality from its head coach. After all, it’s no secret that a team reflects the personality of its coach.
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Yet, where did Jones learn mental toughness? Look no further than his hometown of Saugatuck, Mich.: a small picturesque resort destination situated next to Lake Michigan.
Jones treasures his upbringing in this town so much that he and his family travel to the lakeside community every summer.
He doesn’t take the trip to escape his job or football; he goes because he is grateful for the town and the lessons he’s learned from its residents, lessons that have guided him in his massive rebuilding project of the Tennessee football program.
“You have to have points of your schedule where you are able to have a great balancing act,” Jones said. “Being able to go back to Saugatuck with so many friends, it’s a resort community, it’s a vacation. But also to be around your family and so many people that were instrumental in your growth and development at an early age, it can really set the temperament for years to come. It’s always great to be back.”
Jones has another reason to be excited about his annual homecoming: Saugatuck now dons Tennessee orange.
The Tennessee head coach said Vol fans now vacation in his hometown. Several of the town residents, friends and family who are proud of Jones’ accomplishments, have a collection of Tennessee memorabilia.
“We had to get rid of a lot of Cincinnati stuff,” Saugatuck resident Mark Bekken joked in a phone interview.
Bekken serves as a city council member for the less than 1,000 population town. But long before he was recommending city policies, he was offering advice to Jones on the football field.
Originally, Jones’ junior varsity coach, Bekken became the offensive coordinator for the varsity team the same year Jones advanced to the varsity ranks. Bekken was also Jones’ high school varsity position coach for four years.
Even though Bekken admitted Jones no longer needs football advice from his old high school coach, he and Jones still maintain a close relationship today as Bekken has attended multiple Tennessee football games, including the most recent one.
“I am looking at a picture of him and I holding the (TaxSlayer bowl) trophy,” Bekken said during the phone interview.
Bekken’s relationship with Jones enabled him to readily provide an explanation to the origins of Jones’ mental toughness.
According to Bekken, Jones mastered mental toughness when he mastered commitment, a virtue he had to learn at an early age just to hold a job in Saugatuck.
Jones worked at the Coral Gables, a resort complex on the waterfront in downtown Saugatuck.
Tourists flock to the Coral Gables for its scenic location. With the influx of visitors, the complex needs people to work in the restaurants and bars. There are dishes to clean, food to cook and vacationers to serve.
Attached to these jobs are long hours, Bekken said, with the shifts starting early in the morning and ending late at night.
Also, the environment complicates work at the Coral Gables to a greater extent as it’s difficult to stay focused when recreational activities always remain within eyesight.
Jones learned to ignore these distractions while also balancing his job with playing three sports in high school. He also held managerial responsibilities at the complex.
Yet this commitment at an early age might have established the building blocks for Jones’ current coaching philosophy: a philosophy that emphasizes hard work as a key component to success.
“It’s hard to say learning how to wash dishes and learning how to cook and tend the bar and things like that can formulate how you coach in the SEC,” Bekken said. “But I think it’s just the piece of the puzzle. I think it is the concentration and the commitment, you’re involved in a lot of things.”
Jones’ employment at the resort complex not only helped forge his mentality, but it also strengthened his social skills. Skills that might have played some part in Jones landing back-to-back consensus top-10 recruiting classes in his first two seasons at Tennessee.
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“When you are working in a resort business, you learn how to deal with the public,” Bekken said. “I think the development of his people skills started when he was young.”
While working in the coaching industry, Jones also interacts with the public. It’s another example of how his experiences in Saugatuck shaped his coaching capabilities.
Jones’ coaching skills didn’t just develop in the workplace. His high school athletic director Dan Wilson, now retired, said via phone that Jones’ managerial skills were apparent when he was in sixth grade.
Wilson recalled a story that involved an adolescent Jones as a manager for the high-school varsity basketball team. Even then, Jones was making sure players were well prepared before the upcoming game.
Wilson said he walked into the locker room before a varsity basketball game one day. Every single uniform was meticulously laid out in order, all folded the same, and all the towels were next to the uniforms.
“You just knew he was into athletics,” Wilson said. “(He was) organized, thought everything through, that kind of thing.
“There has been no doubt in my mind for a long time that he would be somewhere in that kind of athletic mode.”
As spring practice winds to a close and the summer approaches, Jones will need that razor-sharp focus on details when preparing for the upcoming football season.
The depth is not where he wants it to be. He will have to determine which player fills the fifth spot on the offensive line. And all he can do is hope that the players injured in the spring fully recover in the summer.
He’s also tasked with managing the burgeoning expectations of fans yearning for a return to ten-win seasons for the 2015 Tennessee season.
Jones will likely suffer more frustrating losses like the 2014 Florida game in the future. And once again, he will have to make sure his team tunes out detractors.
His former hometown mentors, however, are confident that the teenager they witnessed transform into a Division I football coach will always have a solution to the next problem.
“He’s got an inner toughness about him, a real competitiveness about him, and it is all genuine,” Bekken said. “It comes out; you can see that on the sideline at times. He can be a little more demonstrative and that can surprise people at times, but it’s genuine. And he always plays best in the biggest games. Butch has a way of getting the best out of people and that goes back to leadership, leading by example.”
Wilson echoed similar statements, praising Jones inherent ability to always remain focused at his responsibilities.
“He just had that mental toughness that you see coaches say, ‘you can’t coach that, you either got it or you don’t’ and Butch has that,” Wilson said. “And he doesn’t let outside distractions bother him in anything.”