Tennessee, winless this season in SEC play, has decided to part ways with fifth-year coach Butch Jones, sources told ESPN.
The decision was made Sunday, a day after Tennessee was blown out 50-17 at Missouri, the Vols’ fifth loss in their last six games. Two weeks ago, they lost at Kentucky, only their second loss to the Wildcats in the last 33 years.
The decision was first reported by Sports Illustrated.
Jones won’t coach the rest of the season and Brady Hoke will serve as interim coach, sources told ESPN.
Jones guided Tennessee to back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, but was just 3-9 in his last 12 SEC games dating to last season.
Jones’ contract runs through March 2021, and per the terms of his buyout, is owed $2.5 million times the number of years remaining on his deal, meaning his buyout would be somewhere in the $8 million range. That buyout would be mitigated by whatever salary he earns in a new coaching job. Jones was making $4.11 million per year at Tennessee.
Jones, whose overall record at Tennessee was 34-27, had been embattled for much of this season, but the backlash among fans really ratcheted up following a 41-0 home loss to Georgia on Sept. 30, the Vols’ most lopsided loss in Neyland Stadium history.
Tennessee was one of just three SEC teams to win at least nine games during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. But during an injury-plagued 2016 season, the Vols were unable to capitalize on early season wins over Florida and Georgia and lost games to South Carolina and Vanderbilt late in the season to squander a chance to play in their first SEC championship game since 2007, Phillip Fulmer’s next-to-last season.
The new head coach at Tennessee will be the Vols’ fifth in the last 11 years. That’s after Tennessee went 32 years with just two head coaches — John Majors and Fulmer.
When Jones took over in 2013, Tennessee had recorded just one winning season in the previous five years and had lost at least six games in a season for five straight years. He upgraded the roster significantly with four straight top-15 recruiting classes nationally from 2014-17, according to ESPN’s rankings, but wasn’t able to translate that recruiting success to the field, especially in the big games. The Vols were just 5-15 under Jones against AP-ranked opponents and 3-12 against Alabama, Florida and Georgia, their three biggest annual rivals.
Since the beginning of the 2000 season, Tennessee is just 15-39 against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Fulmer, who was fired in 2008, has 11 of those wins. Jones has three. Lane Kiffin, whose only season was 2009, has one. Derek Dooley, who was Tennessee’s coach from 2010-12, has none.
John Currie is in his first year as Tennessee’s athletic director, and sources told ESPN that his preference was to give Jones more time and not have to make a move so soon. But with fan apathy growing and the reality that hanging onto Jones any longer would only make the situation worse, Currie made the decision to cut ties with Jones with regular-season games remaining.
Tennessee last won an SEC championship in 1998, the same year the Vols won the national championship with an unbeaten 13-0 record. Tennessee’s last top 20 finish in the final AP poll was 2007, the year before Fulmer was fired. Fulmer’s teams finished in the top 20 of the final AP poll in 10 of his 16 full seasons, including six top-10 finishes.