Tennessee fires coach Jones; Hoke takes over

Tennessee, winless this season in SEC play, has fired fifth-year coach Butch Jones with two games left in the regular season.

“Unfortunately, we are not where we need to be competitively,” Tennessee athletic director John Currie said Sunday in a statement. “For that reason, I have asked Coach Jones to step down.”

Defensive line coach Brady Hoke will serve as the Volunteers’ interim head coach.

On Saturday, Tennessee was blown out 50-17 at Missouri, the Vols’ fifth loss in their past six games. Two weeks ago, they lost at Kentucky, marking only their second loss to the Wildcats in the past 33 years.

Currie said in the statement that an “exhaustive search is underway” for the Vols’ next coach, who will be Tennessee’s fifth head coach in the past 11 years. That’s after Tennessee went 32 years with just two head coaches: John Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

Jones guided Tennessee to back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 but was just 3-9 in his past 12 SEC games dating back to last season. His overall record at Tennessee was 34-27.

Jones’ contract runs through March 2021. His buyout is around $8 million because he is owed $2.5 million, times the number of years remaining on his deal. 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.

The backlash among fans had been rising this season but really ratcheted up after 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 did not 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, Fulmer’s next-to-last season.

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 to 2017, 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 Associated Press-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 to 2012, has none.

Currie is in his first year as Tennessee’s athletic director, and sources told ESPN that his preference was to give Jones more time. But with fan frustration growing and the reality that hanging on to 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 a 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.

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