The West Virginia Mountaineers are in the midst of finding their next head football coach. This will be their first real coaching search since Don Nehlen’s retirement, and we’re here to break down the top candidates and grade them based on how they would fit in Morgantown.
Mountaineer Nation must now consider the possibility that Sir Lyle Allen "Butch" of House Jones could be our next head football coach. Jones, who was on Rich Rod's staff at WVU as the receivers coach in 2005 and 2006, infamously flamed out at Tennessee in 2017 after a rocky five years on Rocky Top, but however his tenure ended, it has to be said that he did have a couple of decent years there before the wheels fell off. He also won all three of the bowls that the Vols went to during his tenure, which is certainly a stronger track record than what we've experienced these last eight years under Dana.
Jones previously had successful head coaching stints at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, as well, going 23-14 over three years at the former and 27-13 over four years at the latter.
Jones made his name as a position coach on the offensive side of the ball and then built that reputation by engineering productive units at all three of his HC gigs. However, while all were effective, none approach the explosiveness that we've become accustomed to with Dana over the past eight years. A Jones offense would likely be much closer to the power spread that we ran under Rich Rod, but honestly that might not be the worst thing in the short-term considering what we bring back next year. Trey Lowe isn't Pat White, but he's certainly athletic enough to make defenses account for him, while running back is hands down the most loaded position on the roster next year. Considering those two facts, it's very easy to make the case that we should be running the ball more in 2019 anyways, and you could do much worse than Jones to facilitate that transition.
As for the other side of the ball, Jones mostly seems to stay out of the way and let his defensive coordinators do their thing, but it's unclear if he would want to bring in his own DC or retain Tony Gibson, who was on Rich Rod's staff with him during previous tenure at WVU.
Recruiting & Player Development
One thing Butch has done consistently well is get players on campus, which is undoubtedly the primary reason he's being looked at as a candidate. Tennessee is one of those programs that's always able to pull several high level guys so his success there (all five classes were ranked in the top 15, two were top 5) was somewhat expected, but he was also able to put together the top "G5" class in two of his three years at Cincinnati and seemed to improve his classes every year at both Cinci and Central Michigan.
With regards to player development, it's notable that his final seasons at both Cincinnati and Central Michigan were also his best seasons at each school because it seems to suggest that he was able to win once he got "his guys". However, it's also notable that the consensus at Tennessee seems to be that he underperformed relative to his recruiting, and if he struggled with 4 and 5 star kids at UT, you have to wonder how he'd fare with 3 and 4 star kids here against similar competition. I mean, articles like this don't exist for great football coaches, right? You have to question an "offensive" guy who couldn’t figure out what to do with Alvin Kamara.
West Virginia's geography dictates that we'll never be a recruiting powerhouse, so while Jones' body of work should give us confidence that he'd be able to maintain the recruiting gains that Holgs made over the last eight years, we would be remiss to not be concerned about his to get as much out of those players as Dana did.
I'm going to give you a quote from former Tennessee receiver Josh Smith:
“Just the surrounding support staff, it just didn’t feel like family to me. I’m just gonna be honest. I had multiple meetings with Coach Jones, and he knows how I feel. He was … I just never felt like he was himself. I always felt like he put a front on. I mean, he was in such a hard position that I probably would, too, honestly, so I can’t really say anything too bad about him. I do respect him for all the hard work he put into UT, but I honestly wanted the real him. I wanted to be able to, like, laugh, and, like, have a conversation with him. I just felt like I couldn’t ever do that, or anybody ever could. It was just always too serious, or we were in trouble. I just never felt like it was a complete family.”
Now I'm sure Butch had different relationships with different players, but basically what Smith is saying here is that Jones made football not fun, and that's about the exact opposite of what you're looking for in terms of an endorsement from a former player. What's worse is that these comments seem to validate some of the notoriety that Butch garnered for some truly cringe-worthy coach speak and media mishandling during his time at Tennessee, making this section our primary concern when evaluating Jones as a candidate. The effects of a positive work environment should never be underestimated when it comes to performance, so it should be a pretty big red flag that former players are going on the record about Butch literally sucking the fun out of the game.
Grade: D (I'm not going to give a guy I've never met an F)
Interest in West Virginia
As was previously mentioned, Jones was on staff here during the Rich Rod era, so you'd have to imagine he'd be at least open to the possibility of returning, especially in a head coaching role. In the short-term it would offer him a chance to rebuild his reputation as a P5 head coach, and depending on his success, could either turn into a long-term home or a stepping stone to another program.