TAMPA — Tennessee coach Butch Jones was just a teenager from Saugatuck, Mich., when his career in football began with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1980s. He started out doing the team's laundry during training camp at the University of Tampa, a job the lifelong Bucs fan had spent a long time trying to procure.
Nearly 30 years later, Jones is back at the University of Tampa, where his Volunteers are spending the week practicing for their Outback Bowl matchup with Northwestern on New Year's Day. And though Jones' career has taken him to all corners of the college football map since he last worked in Tampa, the third-year Tennessee coach can't help but look at his old stomping grounds and be grateful.
"I always like to go by International (Plaza), where One Buc used to be, and just kind of stand there and reminisce," he said.
Though Jones didn't begin working with the Bucs until the 1980s, family ties to the Tampa Bay area helped foster his love for the team long before that. Jones said he can still remember being in Michigan, searching for the game broadcast on the radio. In 1979, he was in the stands at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit as the Buccaneers beat the Lions 16-14.
"Larry Mucker caught the touchdown pass from Doug Williams in the corner of the end zone to clinch the NFC Central Division championship," Jones happily recalled. "I was decked out in all my orange, and somebody from the upper deck had actually filled a popcorn cup full of ketchup and tried to drop it on me."
Years later, Jones had family members who owned a business in Seminole, right next to a sporting goods store that serviced the Buccaneers. Every time he came down from Michigan to visit, Jones said, he camped outside the store and pleaded for an opportunity with the team. After a lot of persistence, he got one.
Jones wasn't doing the Bucs' laundry for long before he began working on the field as an intern, fulfilling various roles including serving as a ballboy in Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium. During Jones' stint with the Buccaneers, Doug Graber was the defensive coordinator. When Graber took the head coaching job at Rutgers University in 1990, he took Jones with him, offering him a graduate assistantship.
From there, Jones kept climbing, coaching at the Division II and Division III levels before getting his first Division I-A assistant coaching job in 1998 at Central Michigan.
Jones said he considers Tampa his second home. Still, not all the Vols are aware of the depth of their coach's love for the place where he got his start.
"(He hasn't told) all of us. I know he used to coach with the Bucs and he's always been a Bucs fan," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "He didn't tell me (he was a ballboy), but it gives me ammo."
Jones is quick to brag about his memorabilia — he still has Vinny Testaverde's rookie year jersey and Lee Roy Selmon's name plate — and he said he'll challenge anyone on Buccaneers trivia.
But outside of the fandom the Buccaneers created in him, Jones, who went from an injury-shortened playing career at Division II Ferris State to a coach in what many regard as the best college football conference in the nation, feels fortunate for the opportunity the Bucs gave him so long ago, and the career he's not sure he'd have otherwise.
"It makes you appreciate everything you have," Jones said. "I think that's really helped me in building the structure and understanding that everyone is critical. … I respect everybody's job, because I've basically lived it."