If there is a coach in America who might very well have benefited from the old cliche "better lucky than good," it's Butch Jones. In his two head coaching stops so far, Jones has inherited programs from Brian Kelly that were running at peak performance, if not all-time highs. As he takes over at Tennessee, Jones does not have that luxury.
Take, for example, what Butch Jones inherited when he became the head coach at Central Michigan. Kelly had taken over the team after the Chippewas went 3-9 in 2003. Kelly's first season saw Central MIchigan go 4-7 and then 6-5 before the breakout 9-4 regular season in 2006. It was the first time CMU had nine wins since 1994, and the second time since 1980.
Jones did okay with CMU the first two years, with an 8-6 record in 2007 followed up by an 8-5 record in 2008. In 2009, the team went 11-2 before Jones headed off to Cincinnati. Central Michigan ended up No. 23 in the AP poll and No. 24 among the coaches after a bowl win.
When Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame, the Bearcats decided to hire Jones to replace him. It was the logical choice after Jones followed up Kelly's success at CMU and Kelly had led Cincy to records of 10-3, 11-3 and 12-0 before heading to Notre Dame before the Sugar Bowl. (This was probably a wise decision, as that Sugar Bowl was essentially the Tim Tebow Scorched Earth in Return for SEC Loss Farewell Tour.)
Again, Jones got off to a slow start. He was 4-8 in 2010 before improving to 10-3 last year and leading Cincinnati to a 9-3 record in the regular season so far this year.
Which raises the two obvious questions: What will Jones do when he's not taking over a program where Brian Kelly has enjoyed enormous success? And what happens when Jones has to go through a season with only his own recruits? And the fact of the matter is, we can't answer those questions.
We can look at what happened in the one position where Kelly and Jones have both left. At Central Michigan, Dan Enos went 3-9 in both 2010 and 2011 before getting to a bowl game this year and likely saving his job. There are two ways of looking at this. One way says that Enos had a difficult time winning with Jones' players. The other is that Enos' lack of success shows that it's not the case that anyone can win at Central Michigan now, and Jones was just following suit with his success there.
Suffice it to say that Jones will not be building off someone else's success in Knoxville. The Vols went 6-7, 5-7 and 5-7 over the last three season, which is why they're in the market for a new coach to begin with. Jones' job at Tennessee will not be to remain but to rebuild. Tennessee's hope is that Jones is as good blazing his own path as he is following Kelly.