KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When his lack of Southeastern Conference experience came up at his introductory news conference Friday, Tennessee coach Butch Jones wasted no time responding.
"I'll be the first to tell you that Nick Saban and Les Miles had zero experience when they came into the league," Jones said.
Jones' chances of approaching their success will depend on how well he adapts to the conference that has won the last six national championships.
During his last two stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Jones went 50-27 and won at least a share of four conference titles in six seasons. The SEC offers a much tougher test than the Mid-American Conference or Big East.
Jones relishes the opportunity.
"If you want to be best, you want to compete in the best," Jones said. "Obviously the SEC is the best football conference in the country. I have many good friends that compete at this level - on the center stage - and I look forward to it."
Lately, Tennessee hasn't been competitive at this level.
The Volunteers have gone 1-7 in SEC play each of the last two seasons. Jones is replacing Derek Dooley, who was fired after losing 14 of his last 15 conference games.
That makes this a new type of challenge for Jones, who inherited winning teams from Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Now he must rebuild a Tennessee program that has produced three straight losing seasons.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said at the start of the search he wanted someone familiar with the challenges of the SEC. Although Jones hasn't worked in the SEC before, Hart believes the coach understands the league well enough to succeed.
"I do think it's important — particularly in this league and we talked about this at great length — to understand this league and to understand the competitive nature of this league," Hart said. "Butch talked about how good the Southeastern Conference is at the line of scrimmage. He talked a lot about that. He has an excellent grasp and an excellent plan on what he wants to do in that regard."
That plan could include adding assistants who have competed in this league and have recruited in SEC territory before.
Jones' contract includes a minimum of $3 million per year to pay his assistants. Jones vowed to put together "the best football staff in the country," though he also noted SEC experience wasn't essential for a coach to recruit effectively in this part of the country.