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CAN'T START A FIRE WITHOUT A SPARK

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(photo courtesy espn.com)


      While many in Cincinnati mourned the death of former Reds manager Sparky Anderson last week, some forget that he actually managed more seasons for the Detroit Tigers. After guiding "The Big Red Machine" from 1970 to 1978, he was the skipper of the Tigers from 1979 to 1995.

      As big as he was in Cincinnati, he was equally as popular in the Detroit area. This week, I found out that UC football coach Butch Jones once had a chance meeting with the Hall of Famer that he'll remember forever.

      "Especially growing up in Michigan and being a Tigers fan," said Jones. "I still remember 1984 as if it were yesterday and the 'Bless You Boys' as they were called."

      That's what made Sparky Anderson special. He won two World Championships with the Reds in '75 and '76, then later won another in Detroit in '84. Yet, if you met him, you'd find that he had absolutely no ego.

      This past Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Jones told me how honored he was to meet Anderson and how his lessons in life ring true.

      "A couple of years ago, I had the great honor of spending a half day with Sparky," said Jones. "I ran into him kind of unexpectedly in Ann Arbor as he was visiting some people in town. I was able to sit down with him and speak about how you manage personalities and the day-to-day process, the grind of a season and how you motivate."

      Jones found it very rewarding as he's long been a student of leadership methods in many areas. When you've got the attention of man with multiple championship rings, it's usually wise to listen.

      Some may think running a competitive team is a breeze, but there's much more involved than many think. A lot of it has absolutely nothing to do with the game itself.

      "It's hard to manage a collection of great athletes," said Jones. "You have egos you have to manage and personalities and all that. You look at all the great players he managed--he was able to get the best out of each and every person. To me that's the mark of a great manager, a great coach."

      Certainly, short term results are always at the forefront of everyone's minds, but to guys like Anderson and Jones (and many others along the way) it's the long term relationships that make the coaching profession rewarding.

      "It's the lives that you touch five, ten, fifteen years down the road," echoed Jones."

      Having covered athletics at every level for about 25 years, I can honestly say I've never heard one negative word uttered about Sparky Anderson. Butch Jones knows you can't please everyone, but many of Anderson's characteristics are ones he'd like to emulate.

      If you see him interact with his players off the field, in the hallways or during non-practice time, you can see those qualities are there. Unlike some coaches, it's not an act. Jones' players are more than his "employees".

      Ditto with Anderson. Guys that played for him still kept in contact up until his death.

      "Humbleness, his ability to mold a collection of great players into one unit," said Jones when asked what stood out about Anderson's career. "One mindset--the way he was able to shape a club and make it one team. To me, that's what it's all about."

      Perhaps you're not seeing the immediate results that you've been accustomed to in this season with UC football. No one is happy about it, especially Jones.

      But, what you don't see are the many "curves" they've been thrown.

      Specifically, Vidal Hazelton was declared out for the year after the first game, Travis Kelce is sitting out this year due to a violation of team rules, starting corner Dominique Battle is injured and out for the year, running back Darrin Williams is probably out for the year and Tennessee transfer Kenbrell Thompkins can't play until next year as ruled by the NCAA.

      Sure, those are excuses and every losing team has them, but those are also all facts.

      Delving further into facts, there's something teams put out called a depth chart. Obviously, it lists 11 positions on offense and defense with the top two players listed at each spot. So, 44 players in all appear on what's commonly called "the two-deep".

      Well, guess how many are no longer here from last season's Sugar Bowl appearance?

      Close to half of them.

      Translation?

      This wasn't going to be an experienced, senior-laden team regardless of the coaching situation.

      That's not to say this season is lost or things won't be better. They will.

      This young defense reminds me of the youngsters that played on Mark Dantonio's 2005 team that eventually turned into a pretty hard-hitting intense unit the following year.

It's the school of "hard knocks" and a diligent leader is needed at such an institution. That's why Butch Jones pulls from every area he can find, including spending time with Sparky Anderson.

      In football, he's worked under Ray Perkins in the NFL, he followed Tampa Bay assistant Doug Graber to Rutgers, he worked with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and Brian Kelly at Central Michigan.

      In terms of other influences, Coach Jones has many. Most notably, his regimented routines come from his father's career in law enforcement. (In a previous interview, Coach Jones told me if he weren't a football coach, he'd be a police officer.)

      "Obviously, first and foremost, my father," said Jones of the role models he's studied. "Then all of the assistant coaches I've been around, NFL head coaches. I met Jim Leyland (former Pirates and Tigers manager). All of those people you come in contact with in one shape, form or another."

      It's these things and more that help Butch Jones keep focus in unchartered waters (with a losing record). If you examine all of the coaches mentioned in this article, you'll find that while they all had success, they've all also had losing records at one point or another. Sparky Anderson once lost over 100 games with the Tigers.

      That's why you hear such sayings as, "Hold The Rope" from Coach Jones on occasion.

As long as you're holding the rope, you've got a chance to pull yourself up.

      I can assure you, Butch Jones is not letting go.









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