This week I spent time sitting down with football coach Butch Jones to discuss the offseason topics surrounding the Bearcats football team coming off its third Big East title in four years and fourth 10-win season in the last five.
Jones spoke about the pluses/minuses of the proposed new postseason structure, whether he felt personally validated by last year's 10-3 season and personnel philosophies as a young team enters the 2012 season without four NFL draft picks.
Part I of the interview is here today as we tackle the broader spectrum of the program with Part II looking more at the specifics of next year's team.
Jones recently became the media darling with his trip to Miami and time spent with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra as they won the NBA Championship. In fact, Spoelstra even adopted Butch Jones' Sign Your Name concept.
Pictures and accounts of the trip are in the process of being posted around Jones' office. Make no mistake, a trip that also included observation of Miami Dolphins practices and meetings, benefited UC on multiple fronts. The recruiting image sits atop that list. It all comes back to recruiting and this recent exposure was no different.
Yet, as far as learning ways to improve by picking the brain of Spoelstra and the Heat during a championships run, there were takeaways. Finding a connection between motivating 12 multi-millionaries and pushing 105 broke college kids doesn't necessarily correlate on the surface level; digging deeper Jones filled notebooks with fodder.
"Even though there's differences, there's a lot more similarities than differences. At the end of the day it's all about teamwork, it's about people doing their job, it's about execution. It's about playing hard. It's getting to have each individual on your team, whether it's 12 individuals or 105 individuals, to play to the best of their God-given ability and to get the most out of them. The competitive factor that goes into it, the motivation that goes into it. We covered all those things from A to Z. it's been great for me to sit and watch everything happen over the course of the playoffs."
Jones never allows an opportunity to pass. He's spent the days he's not recruiting utilizing the others in the game for trends and topics to improve on. He spent the final day of Bengals mini-camp at Paul Brown Stadium and time with the Dolphins while in Miami.
Finding coaches who look elsewhere for ideas isn't a new concept, but Jones finds his own unique brand of observations to bring back to Nippert.
"You have a checklist, from practice structure and practice organization to coaching points to little nuances to practice tempo, how they conduct their meetings; it's part of the principle, always continue to grow and get better. You can always take something from everyone and every place that you go. You always try to bring little things back. You always try to gain an edge, you always try to gain an inch in your development."
--- The biggest news of the offseason in college football has been the playoff changes that appear destined to be approved. The four-team playoff with a selection committee picking the team's that will play with an emphasis on conference champs earned the unanimous approval of the conference commissioners at last week's meetings.
Butch Jones since Day 1 has been focused on maintaining the structure of the bowl system. What does Jones think about these changes in regards to that model? Well, for him and his conference, it's not perfect.
"I think change was inevitable, but I think it's a great start. It keeps the bowl system in tact, that is what college football is all about. I think it's the best of both worlds, maintaining the bowl system and have a four-team playoff. The only thing we were hoping for as a Big East conference was not selected by a committee but more data driven with conference champions and all that. But it's going to be great for college football. We took a step in the right direction."
The selection committee concept wasn't the desire of the Pac-12 or B1G, either, but the emphasis on conference champions compromise won out. Jones' desire was simple: Let's make this about numbers and not perception. In the college landscape caked in Big East bashing, allowing it to seep into national championship selection would jeopardize the facts.
"A lot of us as coaches have spoke up about this, whatever they decide with the committee you hope it keeps all bias out. It's human nature to be biased. That's where more data driven keeps the bias out. So, that's the thing, as a conference, that's why we are pushing more toward that."
--- Of the 108 players currently on the Bearcats roster, 74 percent (by my unofficial calculations) were recruited by Butch Jones. From my angle that's the first time the number has gone north of 50 percent. More than half of the projected starters for next year were Jones guys.
It appears, for the first time in his tenure at UC, he owns a team of his guys. The name Brian Kelly rarely touches conversation questions anymore. The Bearcats are officially his team with his profile.
I expected Butch to admit there's a more gratifying feeling to playing with his guys and coaching players he developed relationships with as high school juniors and seniors. In retrospect, I should have realized that's not Jones' perspective. No, he's worked too hard on and is too proud of the development of the Bearcats from the Kelly days to own that selfish view.
"No, I don't think so. We are all Bearcats and we are all working toward the same goals, the same mission of the program. Where is it easier? Familiarity, consistency, continuity, they understand the standard and the expectations. That is the biggest thing and that just comes with time. I think we are an extremely young football team. Still, in our program depth at a number of spots is still a concern and an issue. The only way you continue to develop that is recruiting and time. Positions like the offensive lines and defensive lines you can't really expect too many true freshmen to play. I just like the mentality of our football team, I like our work ethic. We are going to be young, we are going to have to have some people step up in leadership roles that maybe haven't had those situations which for a coach sometimes is concerning but we can continue to educate our players. But you have your Walter Stewarts and your Dan Giordanos, your Austen Bujnochs who have really taken on an active ownership and leadership role."
--- Not often have pieces been written about what should have been viewed as a validating year for Butch Jones. Critics circled Nippert Stadium like vultures following 2010. The Bearcats supposedly finally missed on a hire, they would say. Questioning of tactics and methods filled the offseason. At 4-8, there was little to fight back with other than a belief in his system.
Jones never changed a thing. There were moments he could have. There were moments many would have. One year later, those critical baselines faded and replaced with raises for himself and his staff.
The question I had was, did he personally feel validated by flipping 4-8 to 10-3?
"No, because I know it works. I've seen it work other places. I think the big thing is staying the course. Having the plan, sticking to it, not wavering. At the time that 4-8 season was very challenging for everyone but looking back on it there were some benefits. You don't like to say that but there was a lot of things that came about that I think really changed a lot of things. You find out who is with you in times of adversity. We took a lot from that 4-8 season, that really helped set the stage for numerous years to come."
Ever think about, even for a minute, altering some things?
"You got to stay the course.You tweak things based on your personnel, but your fundamental values, the standards, the expectations, the formula for winning never change. Looking back on it we had a team that was very immature, inexperienced and we had a lot of players that had to step up and fill some very big shoes. Lot of times laying a foundation is very tough to do, but once you get that solid foundation, then things take off."
those two years changed you as a coach at all?
very grounded, keep things in perspective, praise and blame it's all
the same. A bunker mentality, you come to work and you prepare your
team mentally and physically. It is that approach every day and
that's the way I approach my job. Has it helped recruiting?
Absolutely, but as far as myself personally it's all about the people
you surround yourself with. The work ethic, the mentality. We'll
never lose sight of anything like that."
Prouder of: Turnaround win margin, four guys drafted in first four rounds or top ranked recruiting classes in UC history?
"Thing most proud of is program in general. Look at it, those are all fundamental values of the standard we talk about with having a successful football program. First and foremost the graduation of our players, then the on-the-field success with being Big East conference champions and Liberty Bowl champions and developing players into NFL Ready. You look at all those as we continue to constantly build and grow our football program, the national perception, being able to recruit against marquee programs across the country. People want to come to the University of Cincinnati. So, when you look at it and say biggest thing proud of, it's the whole package, the whole program in general."