Butch Jones’ 50-27 record as a head football coach is impressive but it isn’t even the best mark on Tennessee’s staff.
That distinction falls to defensive line coach Steve Stripling, who has a winning percentage of 100 by virtue of a 2-0 record as an interim head coach. Both victories came while filling in for Jones and both victories were gut checks.
When Jones left Central Michigan to take the reins at Cincinnati in December of 2009, Stripling guided the Chippewahs to a 44-41 double-overtime defeat of Troy in the GMAC Bowl. Last December, when Jones left Cincinnati to take the reins at Tennessee, Stripling led the Bearcats to two touchdowns in the final 48 seconds, turning a 34-all tie into a 48-34 defeat of Duke in the 2012 Belk Bowl.
“Obviously, those were wonderful experiences,” Stripling said. “I appreciate Coach Jones being a big part of helping me get that responsibility. Obviously, winning both games is something I will never forget.”
In each case, Stripling made very few changes during bowl preparations. For one thing, two weeks of bowl practice left very little time for tweaking. For another, the 2009 Chippewahs and the 2012 Bearcats were successful teams, so maintaining the status quo seemed the best course of action.
Here’s the way Stripling recalled it: “The approach I took in those situations is: The program is in place. There’s change happening but you train your team to react when change and adversity strikes. That’s what I saw as my role – just keep everybody together, do what we do. We’re plenty good. We’re plenty successful. Let’s just do what we do. That’s the approach I took.”
That approach was severely tested in the opening minutes of the Belk Bowl. Two quick touchdowns and a field goal staked Duke to a 16-0 lead just 11 minutes into the contest. Stripling kept his poise, however, and helped his players do the same.
“The last bowl game things got a little rocky at first but we were able to hold in there, to weather the storm,” Stripling recalled. “That’s what you train ‘em for — controlled chaos. It’s loud — people are yelling, whistles are blowing, things are happening — but kids have to play through all of that. It still boils down to them doing their jobs.”
Those two experiences as an interim coach helped Stripling immeasurably. Seeing game preparations and game strategies from the head coach’s vantage point provided a sharper understanding of the big picture.
“You get an appreciation for the head coach and all of the many hats and responsibilities he has,” Stripling said. “Coach Jones loves to coach ball and he has so many responsibilities. That’s the thing I found: As the head coach, even in that short-term period, you have so many people tugging on you and you’ve got to do so many different things that there’s not as much coaching as you’d like to do.”
Stripling and Jones became acquainted six years ago and forged an immediate bond.
|Stripling's relationship with Butch Jones (pictured) goes back to when the two were working in Michigan.|
“I first met Butch when I was at the University of Michigan and he was the new head coach at Central Michigan,” Stripling recalled. “We spent a lot of time talking football. I actually went up and visited with his staff at one time.”
That friendship proved fruitful when Lloyd Carr stepped down as Michigan’s head coach following the 2008 season, leaving Stripling temporarily without a job.
“When Coach Carr retired, I was able then to go with Butch,” Stripling said. “I had two sons playing at Alma College, which was probably 25 miles from Central Michigan. As a college coach, you don't spend much time with your kids. It was great to be with Butch, great to be near my sons, so that was the start of our (working) relationship.”
Stripling was so impressed with Jones that he followed him to Cincinnati in January of 2010 and followed him to Tennessee in January of 2013. The former is amazed by the latter’s focus.
“Butch is an attention-to-detail coach,” Stripling said. “He has his eye on everything. I think my role is to help him do that. I think he has confidence in me in that, if he's out of the room or off the field, I can step in.
“The interim head coaching that I've done for him has put me in that position. We just have a great relationship, great trust with each other, and it's working great.”
Given that Jones is Tennessee’s fourth head coach in six years, Vol fans are hoping he’ll settle in for a long tenure. If he leaves, though, Tennessee can take comfort in knowing it has an undefeated interim coach waiting in the wings.
Here's more from Stripling after his last media opportunity in Knoxville: