A coach’s third year is always the most important. The first two seasons will let you get away with promises of rebuilding, raising expectations and finishing with a less than stellar record.
But Year 3 is when a coach is supposed to live up to the hype or face the consequences. It’s no coincidence that many of football’s least successful coaches are fired after their third season.
This is when the act wears thin. The moral victories and signs of potential aren’t enough to earn job security. Winning is all that matters.
Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema are two of the three SEC coaches in their third season with their respective programs — the other being Kentucky’s Mark Stoops. Their teams will meet at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
But Jones and Bielema share much more than a matchup this weekend. They are two coaches walking in parallel patterns.
Bielema was a former Big Ten conference Coach of the Year at Wisconsin before joining Arkansas in December 2012. Jones was also a conference Coach of the Year at Cincinnati, the midwestern school he coached at before moving south for Knoxville.
Unlike his SEC colleague, Bielema entered his tenure with higher expectations after helping Wisconsin become a national contender. But Jones — who many Vols fans considered an unknown prior to his hire — quickly earned the admiration of the Tennessee faithful with a strong press conference and a salvaged recruiting class.
Yes, Butch Jones is a talker. He’s preached a “brick by brick” philosophy since his arrival, which some may see as writing a check he can’t cash. But still, his charm and steady progress with a program facing far worse circumstances prior to his arrival kept him in the good graces of the Tennessee fan base.
Bielema is, once again, more of the same. If you think Jones is a talker, wait until you hear Bielema. Unlike Jones, Bielema isn’t a talk box full of coaching cliches, rather a man who is always good for a soundbite.
And despite going winless in SEC play during his debut season, the coach managed to earn optimism after his team upset both LSU and Ole Miss in 2014.
Both coaches entered 2015 with monumental expectations. Many picked the Vols to be a potential dark horse to challenge Georgia for the SEC East division title. Same with Arkansas who, despite finishing last in the SEC West in 2014, was predicted to be as high as No. 1o overall in preseason.
But now, we find ourselves with a far more disappointing matchup at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Arkansas has just one win in its first four games. The Razorbacks have lost three consecutive games to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M — although they seemed to be a more complete team against the latter.
Tennessee has seen its own disappointment. The Vols are 2-2 with losses to Oklahoma and Florida. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that bad.
Both the Sooners and Gators remain ranked in the Top 25. However, both losses came on fourth quarter collapses in games Tennessee should have won handedly.
And who’s to blame for both losses? Butch Jones and the Tennessee coaching staff who decided on both occasions to play passive with a fourth quarter lead and abandon the passing attack.
So here we are. Bielema and Jones both suddenly face the hot seat after spending the majority of their first two seasons in the good graces of their respective fan bases.
It’s too soon to know how their fates will turn out but Saturday’s game should be an early indication. While a loss would have been acceptable in preseason, both teams are in need of a win at all costs to salvage what could be a continuous downward spiral of a season.
Both Bielema and Jones’ coaching tenures ride on Saturday’s game. The winner should buy more time with his team while the loser faces an even hotter seat moving forward.