No joy in Knoxville (or Nashville) after Butch dismissed

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Getting a lot of texts right now from folks who presume that I'm happy right now that Tennessee has fired Butch Jones. It's a natural presumption, I guess, and it stems from the story I wrote last December that included internal sources who were critical of Jones and skeptical of his viability in the position.

Yeah, they were right, which seemed clear at the time -- but, no, I'm not happy. There's no joy in seeing where Tennessee football has sunk, and there's absolutely no joy in seeing Butch (or anyone) being fired. 

It was necessary. It was inevitable. But, no, this isn't by any means a joyous day. It's been beyond embarrassing to watch this fall, including Saturday. It's been a struggle for so many of my friends who work on campus. They're good people who deserve so much better. But this isn't cause for a parade.

For one thing, it means that many others on staff will be let go. There will once again be turnover inside the football building and athletic department. You think of those people, those families, impacted by a firing. There will be other jobs for most, and they all know it's part of the territory, but it doesn't alleviate the hardship.

Additionally, and something that was even acknowledged repeatedly within the story about him: Butch Jones did positive things for the University of Tennessee. He wanted to do right. I remember Butch telling me, the first time I met him on Signing Day 2012, that he "wanted to make me proud" of Tennessee again. He set out with all those intentions. I appreciated that.

Behind every goofy mantra, every eyeroll-inducing gaffe, was someone who wanted to win and do it the right way. It got off track, clearly, but it was certainly well intended.

He fell short because his ceiling was limited. That became more and more obvious over time, but it was glaringly clear when the 2016 team not only failed to win the division and reach Atlanta - but when it fell on its face at Vanderbilt with a Sugar Bowl bid on the line. If the staff couldn't get the Vols over that hump in that moment, it was simply never going to happen. That's when inevitability set in for me.

But let's not lose sight of what a morbid situation Jones took over. Both lines were essentially devoid of talent and depth. Recruiting had been an afterthought, which is comical to even think about in the context of the SEC. The next coach will not have nearly as tall of a mountain to climb, and he'll have Jones to thank for the foundation.

Granted, Jones had started to undo some of that progress -- his work with alums early on was terrific and needed, which is why the recent Antone Davis story was so alarming -- but the whole thing is still so much further along than it was following Derek Dooley's reign of terrible.

So, if you're a Vols fan, at least tip your cap to Jones for his teams that metaphorically moved the ball -- and pray that AD John Currie and other decision-makers find the coach who can move it across the goal line.

My thoughts haven't changed much since I wrote this early October, but I continue to talk with alums and those close to the program -- and we almost all agree that Mississippi State's Dan Mullen adds up for both sides.

Why:

-- Mullen is confident enough to handle a job that can make others melt down. (See: Jones.) It takes someone headstrong. My concern there is headbutting with Currie, but Currie's got to be wise enough to work that out.

-- It isn't requisite, but vast experience in the SEC has to count for a lot. He knows the league. There would be no learning curve there.

-- Relative to talent on roster, his teams overachieve just about every year. Including 2017. That has to be music to the ears of a program that's seen teams consistently underachieve relative to talent.

-- That goes back to development, and that's long been a calling card of Mullen's Mississippi State staffs. Tennessee's immediate recruiting area is better than it was when Phillip Fulmer was head coach, but it's still a program that needs to value identification/development as much as landing top-shelf talent. Mullen's staffs landed some gems, but they also turned 2- and 3-stars into actual stars. (For one, I don't recall Dak Prescott being hyped as a recruit.)

-- Part of that is I've noticed Mullen seems to hire extremely well. He's had several changes over the years, and more often than not, he gets the hire right. Even when he missed with DC Peter Sirmon last year, the decision was rectified and improved. Hiring is a necessary trait for a coach in this CFB world.

-- On his end, surely he's tired of sharing a division with Bama ... Auburn ... LSU ... et al. The ceiling is defined for even Mississippi State's overachieving teams, just because of the nature of the division. That isn't true of Tennessee and the SEC East. It should be regularly in Atlanta, and most people agree with me that Mullen is more than capable of that. He'd be my choice.

Thank God for Austin Peay

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Talk about a something I never thought I'd think, say or write. But it's true. At some point every day, I wind up thanking God for Austin Peay and its football team. 

It has been a uniquely challenging period in my life, but in a completely unexpected turn of events, Austin Peay has become a very real source of hope. It's been my constant.

So, before I go any further, I want to thank everyone there - and particularly head coach Will Healy - for making me feel so incredibly welcome. It's meant more than you'll ever know.

My reward has been a front-row seat for a story that is evolving into perhaps the very best of this college football season.

The fact that the Governors are 6-4 might not seem all that impressive to you, but consider that the six victories match the program's win total from 2011-16 - the previous six seasons. As of mid-September, APSU had a 29-game losing streak - 16 games longer than any other program in the country.

So, the turnaround has been swift and rather profound. Most recently, Austin Peay swept its in-state conference opponents - UT Martin, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech - to lay claim to the Sgt. York Trophy for the first time in school history. The hardware made a cameo at Tuesday morning's practice. 

What Healy, the coaches and players are doing is special, and it has a chance to get even more remarkable in the next two weeks. If the Govs can get past Eastern Kentucky (3-6) and Eastern Illinois (6-4), they'd finish 8-1 against FCS-level competition, with the only loss coming against No. 2-ranked Jacksonville State.

That resume would put them in excellent position for the school's first FCS playoff berth. Even with optimism that this season would be a step in the right direction, that would measure as a quantum leap for Austin Peay. It would exceed every realistic expectation those in the building had for what was possible.

It's truly been one of the great pleasures of my life to see the joy the coaches, players and staff exude after each one of these victories.

In an era in which college football has become a massive business, and with scandal a regular fixture on the national stage, Austin Peay has continually reminded me what makes the sport great: This is the ultimate underdog story. And it's also the story of young coaches and players trying to evolve and grow as people - and win a few games while they're at it. Winning, as Healy says, is the validation for the work and effort; it isn't the reason why they're there.

There really is an innocence to it. There's a purity to it. It's as genuine as it gets, something rooted on Healy's personality and his leadership as head coach. It's going to be a blast to see his career take off. Even Jacksonville State fans would probably say he should be a lock to win OVC Coach of the Year.

Spoiler alert: He's a crier.

A win is taken for granted in so many places, but each one for Austin Peay turns into a party. That's what happens when, week after week, you're altering an entire history.

Here's hoping there are two more wins to come and Austin Peay - in the course of one season - goes from the nation's longest losing streak to the school's first FCS playoff appearance.

-- Trav

 

PS -- I'd never been to Clarksville in my life, and I bet I've been 100 times since July 2016. I had heard Healy was someone I should get to know, so we went to lunch.

But there's something about him and something about the place that stuck with me - which is what a lot of people wind up saying about this story. So I went back in the middle of August. And then I went back a few days later. And then I went to the home opener two weeks later.

And I just kept going back, again and again. I think I've been to 15 of their games, going back to the start of last season.

I started to figure out last fall that this had the potential of a remarkable turnaround, and I began taking notes. Then I started shooting video, borrowing one of the school's cameras when I could.

We have hours and hours of video to go with hundreds of pages of notes, and we're dying to get this story out there. So if you know of any publishers and/or film editors looking for a project, the compelling raw materials - and the priceless narrative and rich characters - are there. It just needs the right touch and direction.

It's been so fun to be around. Even when they weren't winning, it was amazing to watch. But, yeah, winning's more fun ...

Here's the trailer we shot back in the summer. Cheers.

If not Butch, then whom ...?

After being hammered 41-0 at home by Georgia, Butch Jones' dismissal at Tennessee feels imminent. Every Volunteers fan can tip their cap to the efforts Jones has made to prop up the program - and he has in various ways - but the on-field ceiling is more than evident at this point.

A reasonable standard for Tennessee football in this day and age should be semi-regular SEC title game appearances, and the Vols appear no closer to that than when Jones arrived - even though the talent level has been bolstered and there are plenty of resources available to win the wide-open division.

Lists of possible replacements for Jones are beginning to surface. Some are viable, others are borderline ludicrous and still others should be considered. Here's my breakdown.

FANTASY CANDIDATES: UT MIGHT TRY, BUT NOT HAPPENING

Chip Kelly, FA: I've been told repeatedly, even when Kelly was still coaching in the NFL, that he would not be interested in an SEC job. He doesn't want anything to do with the league's recruiting shark tank, particularly knowing that his recruiting base is centered on the West Coast. And he doesn't want anything to do with the fishbowl that comes along with the league. Kelly had his own fiefdom when he was in Eugene, Oregon; if he's returning to the college game, expect it to be a Pac-12 job with a similar level of attention and scrutiny. Even UCLA, in Los Angeles, comes with remarkably less pressure than a mid-tier SEC job like Arkansas or South Carolina. I'm inclined to think he'd land somewhere like Arizona State far sooner than Tennessee or Texas A&M.

Jon Gruden, FA: The Gru-mor mill will again churn, but if the MNF analyst returns to coaching, expect it to be in the NFL. Illustrating that: I was once told that Gruden, who was sort of interested in the Arkansas job at one point, asked Steve Spurrier about coaching on the college level. Gruden was left in shock by the amount of rules and regulations - practice hours, recruiting periods, etc. - and essentially swore he'd never coach in college. I have heard that Gruden was furious that ESPN let former broadcast partner Mike Tirico walk. But if he leaves the booth, expect it to be for a pro job.

Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Petrino is a hell of a college coach, as has been proven time and again, but this doesn't add up with the John Currie that I know. Too much baggage, too much clouding such a pivotal move for the first-year AD. This would feel like a mistake, even if Petrino is looking to leap from Louisville's sinking ship of an athletic department.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: Certainly makes sense why Tennessee would want him. Fuente is excellent, a bright, rising star in the business. But Fuente and I talked when he got to Virginia Tech about fit. He told me that he loved the size of Blacksburg and didn't want to live or coach in a larger market, one with more media presence and scrutiny. He also seemed to hint that he wouldn't be interested in an SEC job, because of the undue pressures that come along with it. If he ever left Virginia Tech, it would likely be a job closer to home in Oklahoma - maybe Oklahoma State or TCU, where he worked for Gary Patterson.

Scott Frost, UCF: Frost took over an 0-12 program, got UCF to a bowl game in his first season and the 3-0 Knights look like legitimate AAC contenders in Year 2. That success makes Frost look like a no-brainer for his alma mater at Nebraska, especially with Mike Riley wobbling and a new AD coming in. Even if NU weren't immediately available, Frost might be in the same vein as Kelly, his former boss at Oregon; not everyone is interested in wading into the SEC's shark-infested waters.

Les Miles: Love Les, but if he couldn't get a sincere look at Houston, Baylor and Purdue, why on earth would Tennessee seriously consider him?

Bob Stoops, FA: Knowing Bob, the only college job he'd even consider coming out of retirement for is Notre Dame. And I have my doubts whether he'd take that. I think he's happy.

REALISTIC CANDIDATES

Dan Mullen, Miss. State: This is the name that has stuck with me for months. Some counter that Mullen could hold out for Notre Dame, should it open. That's fair. But in the event that it does not, Tennessee certainly adds up. 

Privately, I've been told Mullen believed he should have gotten a longer look when Florida hired Jim McElwain and Georgia hired Kirby Smart. If I'm Tennessee, I'd love to have someone who has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to UF and UGA, someone who'd relish those wins in the way that, say, Spurrier felt about UGA and UT when he was at Florida. Mullen and his staff have shown the ability to develop mid-tier recruits; most years, his Mississippi State programs have been overachievers. Tennessee's fan base would crawl down the Cumberland Avenue Strip to be an overachiever just one year.

Mullen's temperament - confident-bordering-on-cocky - would play well; the heat in the kitchen wouldn't bother him, a bonus when compared to Jones' level of sensitivity. His sometimes boisterous personality might initially rankle some in the UT fan base, but if he can win over Starkville, Miss., he can win over Knoxville, Tenn. Winning football games sure helps, it turns out.

Mullen would love to get away from the SEC West schedule grind. It's no secret in Starkville that he's wanted out for the past couple of years. He was really close to the Oregon job. This is a far better fit than that one. Mullen's experience as a head coach in the SEC sets him apart from anyone else on this list.

As a massive added bonus, Mullen's wife, Megan, is a saint. She'd be an asset in any community, Knoxville included.

Jeff Brohm, Purdue: A Power 5 coach called me a year ago and told me he'd been watching some of Western Kentucky's film. He swore Brohm would be a star at the Power 5 level when he arrived. So far, that coach is looking prophetic; Purdue is already a relevant team in the Big Ten West, and that figures to only take hold as Brohm and his staff begin their recruiting efforts in earnest. In addition to owing Jones about $7 million, Brohm's buyout at Purdue is $5 million; I doubt that would be a deterrent if it's determined by Currie and others that he's that good. (He probably is.)

Mike Norvell, Memphis: Full disclosure: Norvell has been one of my favorite people in CFB for years, going back to his time as Arizona State's OC. He's genuine. He's bright. He's detail-oriented. Some coaches I know raved about the way that he handled and ran his camps last summer. He's mature beyond his 35 years, much the same way that Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is. Old souls. He's taken the baton from Fuente and done well at Memphis. Peers know that Norvell will move up soon to a Power 5 gig. He'd immediately win over Tennessee fans, players and administrators with his authenticity.

OFF-RADAR BUT WORTH CONSIDERING

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia: The angst between Holgorsen and WVU's brass has cooled compared to a year ago, but he still might be looking for an escape hatch. He's regarded in the profession as one of its brightest offensive minds, maybe the best. Holgorsen has recruited well in Florida and the Northeast, which would be a plus at Tennessee, but you wonder about his staff's learning curve in recruiting the South. But know this: His 49-32 record represents overachieving at WVU. Many of the program's fans think the job should be as easy as it was in the Big East, but that's ridiculous. In the Big 12, geographically separated from the rest of the league, it's a tough gig. He's done well.

Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Not often discussed or considered for other jobs, but the guy does a damn-good job. (The Utes are 4-0.) Developing players and overachieving, Whittingham is essentially Pac-12 Dan Mullen. Is he a "West Coast guy," considering his recruiting base? Perhaps. But his teams' identities - toughness and physicality up front - would play anywhere. If he can elevate Utah from a Group of 5 to a successful Pac-12 South program, why couldn't Whittingham make Tennessee a consistent force in the SEC East?

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: If he was interested once, would he be again? Gundy, now 50, feels more and more likely to be a lifer at his alma mater in Stillwater. Tennessee would be more than wise to kick the tires, though.

Chad Morris, SMU: It took some time given the way he found the program, but Morris finally has the Ponies (currently 4-1) playing well in the American. I'd expect Morris to be one of the top choices at Texas A&M, his alma mater, but it doesn't mean Tennessee shouldn't pursue him. Morris has many of the same head-coaching philosophies and mannerisms that Dabo Swinney, his former boss at Clemson, has leveraged to excel. He'd be a great fit in Knoxville.

Neal Brown, Troy: Brown's profile was already on the rise, but last week's win at LSU significantly elevated it. (Folks forget that the Trojans also pushed Clemson to the brink in 2016.) Troy wasn't in great shape when Brown took over, and he's made it relevant in a hurry. Some coaches envision the former Texas Tech assistant returning to the Big 12, but Brown would likely succeed in any league.

Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State: App doesn't have as strong of a team this year as in past seasons - including 2016, when the Mountaineers nearly upset the Vols at Neyland Stadium. But Satterfield's ability to elevate the program from the FCS level to a regular bowl participant is extremely impressive. Most expect that the North Carolina Triangle-area native would be in line for a gig like N.C. State, should it open.

Jason Candle, Toledo: Coaches and agents tell me that Candle, who is 13-5 at Toledo, will be a Power 5 success. This one may not rev up the fan base, especially those fearing it's another version of Jones, but someone will eventually pluck Candle and they'll probably be very happy that they did.

Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic: Just kiddin'.

DOESN'T REALLY ADD UP, FOR NOW

Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator: I'm a big Tee Martin fan, as a human and as a coach, but this would be an extremely risky move by Currie and UT. Ideally, you'd like to see Martin cut his teeth somewhere as a head coach before taking on a job like Tennessee. I do think Martin will be a head coach next season, but I think it'll be at South Alabama, in his hometown of Mobile. That would be a great fit and step for Martin, a place where he can further prepare himself for a Power 5 job.

Jim Bob Cooter, Detroit OC: The former UT quarterback has blossomed as an NFL play-caller, and JBC does spend a decent amount of time in Nashville. But Cooter seems on track to soon become an NFL head coach.

Have I mentioned I love this city? (#gopreds)

Today is sorta kinda a big day in the life and history of Nashville. If you haven't heard, the local hockey club is in the middle of a record-setting run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With one more win tonight against Anaheim, the Predators would advance to the Stanley Cup Final to play either Ottawa or Pittsburgh. (It's looking like the Penguins, the defending Cup champs.)

The Preds have something of a niche audience during the regular season; I've been a part of the "Loyal Legion," as its called, for the past two seasons. I probably saw 25 regular-season games in person, and I want to say I only missed maybe two or three games on TV. I was bought-in all the way for this season after last year's second-round appearance and the blockbuster off-season trade for superstar defenseman P.K. Subban.

But the playoffs? Everyone jumps on board. It first started in town, with the city getting more and more behind the team as it swept rival Chicago in Round 1. The country music anthem singers' appearances - Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan among them - have not hurt anything in terms of local visibility.

But as the run continued, getting past St. Louis in six games in Round 2, the country started to pay attention to this smaller-market club making a lot of noise. Literally. Bridgestone Arena is a great home environment for most any home game - it sold out for every Preds home game during the regular season - but it's gone to new level after new level as the team has done the same thing on the ice.

A lot of people going to the playoff games say it's the loudest sporting venue they've ever been inside. Some say the Titans' Music City Miracle in 2000 was louder. I could probably put some of my experiences at Neyland Stadium up against it; I recall a lengthy overtime game against Arkansas, with Jason Witten catching the game-winning score, that was deafening.

But those are outdoor venues with 70,000-100k people. Smashville is in its own class as an arena that holds 17,000-plus. I've taken a different person to every playoff game so far, and I love the fact that I cannot overhype the experience. It lives up to the attention its getting night after night.

And I cannot wait to hear it tonight.

With an appearance in the Lord Stanley's final dangling in the May air, tonight has a chance to be historically special - and historically loud. Bridgestone has already flirted with the 130-decibel record for an indoor venue that was set in February at a Kansas basketball game. A timely goal tonight from a Preds, and that record is going down as Tim McGraw sings the goal song.

I've been inspired by how the team has come together in these playoffs. It's played its best hockey by far in the postseason, defeating two division rivals before taking a lead against Anaheim on Saturday night without two of its more integral players, Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher. Odds are Fisher is out again tonight, but young and unsung players keep making improbable contributions. And Pekka Rinne continues to play some of his career's best minutes in net.

The Preds keep finding a way, and the community's support continues to grow and grow. It's amazing to see -- and it gives me chills to think what it would be like with one more win and that vaunted Stanley Cup Final appearance. Already tonight, especially with pleasant weather, there could be as many as 10,000 people outside the arena in addition to all those of us inside.

If the Preds win, there will be a party on Lower Broadway. God, I hope they win, just to see the scene tonight and for the next couple of weeks.

The economic windfall - particularly with some of the series coinciding with country music's biggest part of the year, CMA Fest - would be incredible; it already has been. If there's another series, I bet superstar musicians would stand in line to play free shows in the plaza across the street from Bridgestone. It doesn't matter whether you're Thomas Rhett or Rhett Thomas, Nashville is behind its hockey team.

I was dropping someone off Sunday night in East Nashville when we noticed a couple of guys stenciling the outline of the Predators logo on a wall. It was pretty late, maybe 10:30 p.m., and I thought someone had spontaneously decided to start a little mural.

I went back over a few minutes ago, and this is what I found:

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That stenciled logo had sprung to life with color, and it had been given beautiful context. It was such a pleasant surprise as I turned the corner. I just expected to the see the Pred Head.

I pulled over, got out of the car and asked if the artist minded if I took a picture. I reached out my hand and introduced myself to Troy, who had been finishing up the Tennessee state flag logo in the Preds' gold and blue.

Troy told me that he lives across the street and that he and Phillip, who lives in the house where mural resides, had been painting these for holidays for years. They've become neighborhood-famous for their work; everyone in East Nashville comes by to see what they've come up with for St. Patrick's Day and Christmas.

Over the weekend, they decided to commemorate the Preds' run with a special edition mural. They got a beautiful, 77-degree May day in which to work today.

Go see it at Eastland and 20th, on the right just past Rosepepper and Jeni's.

This run has embodied everything great about this great city. I sure hope the Preds find a way again tonight. We'll be doing our part; that much I know for sure.

Have I mentioned I love this city?

-- T

An afternoon with Inky

I knew Inky Johnson's story and his powerful, keen ability to connect with people through that story, but I'd never heard the former Tennessee football player-turned-motivational speaker do his thing in person.

So I drove up to Clarksville, Tenn., on the afternoon of March 15 to hear Johnson address the Austin Peay football program -- an FCS program that has won just one game since 2012, something I wrote about on National Signing Day. (The Govs could use the motivation, right??)

Johnson's energy and message was as advertised. You could sense that he reached the players and coaches - and a reporter lingering in the back - in an authentic and meaningful way. He's uniquely dynamic in his delivery and tone. Put it this way: No one was checking their phones during his 45 minutes in front of the room. 

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For those unfamiliar with the story: The Atlanta native had overcome numerous obstacles - including a crime-ridden neighborhood and being an undersized athlete - to land at the doorstep of his lifelong dream: playing in the NFL.

And then, in an instant, it was all taken away. Johnson had labored for literally thousands of hours to turn himself into a first-round projection, and then it was all gone. The money ... gone. The dream ... gone.

Late in Tennessee's game against Air Force on Sept. 9, 2006, Johnson sprinted over to tackle a player in the open field. He jolted the receiver out of bounds, but his body immediately went limp as he fell to the turf. He was carted off and, for a while, it appeared as if his life would be in danger. He recovered, but doctors told him that his football career was over.

As Johnson encountered friends, family and eventually strangers, he figured out that there was thunder in his story. He could inspire and encourage many, many people, particularly young athletes. He has developed a voice and message over the past decade or so. ESPN even did a lengthy feature on his new, blossoming career - and his ability to turn tragedy into triumph.

Here, watch him in action:

 

After he spoke to Austin Peay's football team that afternoon, I asked if Johnson had a few minutes to talk about ... talking. I wanted to know the backstory on his career and where it might be heading from here. I planned to run the interview on 247Sports in the days or weeks after interviewing him.

But that never happened.

I drove back to Nashville and met my editor, who had asked to come over to my home. I was spooked but didn't want to overreact. How bad could it be? I had just started the job in November, about four months earlier.

I greeted my editor as he pulled up to my house. He exited his car and I said, 'I'm a little freaked out, man. What's going on?'

He said, 'Well, do you want the bad news now?'

I think I was on the second or third step - I hadn't even made it to the front door - when he told me that my position at the company had been eliminated, effective immediately. It was perhaps the most stunning news I'd ever received. I probably turned ghostly white and had my jaw on the floor as we talked through it for 10 or 15 minutes. I still admire my editor's calm and sincerity in a difficult moment for him.

So, going back to my afternoon, explain to me that sequence of events. How is it even remotely possible that I could encounter Johnson and his story of attitude and perspective in the face of profound adversity - only to return home to find new adversity on my doorstep (literally)? I had no idea what I was about to walk into.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? It's those kinds of things that build me up and encourage me that, 'you know what, God is in control of my life and his plans are dang-sure higher and better than my plans.' It's these events - not-so-coincidental, if you ask me - that have kept me afloat in a season of storm after storm.

I'm still floating along. Still here. By God's grace, I'm moving forward with a sincere hope about the future.

Here's my Q-and-A with Inky from that day, about how he started down a new path as a motivational speaker when his dream of being an NFL player abruptly ended. He hints that the "alternate" path was the correct one all along, something I alluded to this week.

I'm particularly struck by some of his responses to my questions, particularly a topic I've touched on several times: losing yourself in the pursuit of a dream - and the coming to senses that occurs on the back side of that.

To say the least, I have immense respect for Johnson, his strength and his commitment to helping people via his own story. His words that day wound up inspiring me in an incredibly personal way. I'm again left grateful and hopeful.

--

INKY JOHNSON/March 15, 2017

“I didn’t think what I had been through and experienced was anything special, because where I grew up, my particular area in Atlanta, everybody went through similar situations - and sometimes even worse.

“It wasn’t until I got injured that - I was always big on serving. I was part of Habitat for Humanity with the team. Whenever we had projects in the community, I would go. I would just go out and serve. After I got injured, people would always want to know how I was doing. They would ask questions - ‘How are you doing?’ It would strike up like an informal Q-and-A. Everybody would just pay attention. Everyone would just stop what they were doing.

“One day, (former Tennessee and New England linebacker) Jerod Mayo, one of my best friends, said ‘Ink, you might want to look into speaking.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ It was after my injury. I was trying to find my way. I went over to a place called the Wesley House, in Knoxville. They invited me to come and speak. I went and had no idea what I was doing, but we had a great time.

“And it felt right. I got the same feeling that I got when I played ball, and I still do. When I got that feeling, I prayed that night and was like, ‘Lord, I don’t know if this is what you want me to do with my life, but if it is, I submit and let’s go.’ Ever since that point, opportunities have come, gradually. I just accepted them, embraced them. I don’t even carry a business card. I’ve never carried a business card, and I’ve been speaking for 11 years now - ever since my injury. It’s worked out.”

 

(How do you define purpose in this vocation that you found - or, rather, the one that found you?)

“I’m a firm believer that everything we do in life should have a greater purpose than just ourselves, because when we face opposition and adversity and rough patches, the driving force for why we do it is very important. When it’s just about people, themselves, and they hit adversity or something tough, they quit. Because it’s just about them. They don’t have a greater purpose why they’re doing it. So with me, my mission and my life’s work is just to serve. With the things I’ve been through and what I’ve been dealt, it’s to figure out a way to add value to every person in life I come in contact with, every environment that I go into. I may not see it right away, but that’s not going to stop me from living my life the way that I want to live it and doing things the way I want to do it. It’s just a part of who I am.”

 

(In particular, what does it mean when you speak with young people? Do they sometimes wind up influencing you as much as you influence them?)

“It means the world to me. I remember when I was a young athlete. You don’t think about a lot outside of athletics. You’re a young jock. You play ball. You can run fast, jump high. Everybody thinks they’re going to the next level, whether it’s the NFL or NBA. A lot of times, they miss the boat on the purpose of the platform, which is sports. They miss the boat on the mentality that it can create.

“So when I speak to them, I’m speaking to them about life - the mentality, the spirit, the dedication, the commitment. I want to make sure they understand why you run sprints, why you do extra work, why you never cheat, why you hold your teammates accountable and why you let them do the same for you. It’s deeper than just sport; you’re talking about cultivating a relationship - not only a relationship, but a spirit, a mentality, a dedication, a commitment that can sustain you for the rest of your life, if you go about it the right way. And I want guys not to miss the boat on that aspect. When I get a chance to speak to them, it’s very fulfilling and very rewarding. I don’t want them to miss the boat on what the game can produce.”

 

(Amid a hectic schedule - and given how emotional your talks often are - is it challenging to keep your energy going at a high level?)

“It gets challenging because of the way that I live my life. I could simply go places and chill and sleep in a hotel. A lot of times, I go places and then turn right back around. I very seldom stay the night anywhere. I go places and get back home to my wife and my children, if they’re not traveling with me. Because of the standard and the expectation that I have for me as a man, as a father and as a husband, I’m constantly trying to grow as a servant. I’m constantly trying to grow. With that aspect, it gets challenging, because I have an accountability to myself.

“But also just with the mentality that I had as an athlete, I take that to speaking. I look at this as ‘if I’m not in shape, if I don’t eat right, if I don’t work out,’ then I can’t be the best possible servant that I could be and do the work that I feel like I’ve been called to do.”

 

(How old are your kids?)

“Five and 6. Five-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. Man, they keep me busy.”

 

(How many speaking dates have you had in the past 11 years?)

“I know the past three years, I’ve been up around 200 dates. That’s just the past three years. I just do a lot of stuff, whether I’m under contract or not. I just do a lot of events, so I have no idea, but it’s been a ton.”

 

(Has the message evolved over the years?)

“It has. It has. It’s evolved from not just a story but the things I’ve learned and what prepared me to get through one of the toughest moments of my life. One of the guys from ESPN, when they did the special that aired, he said, ‘It’s not so much about the story why we came to you. We see stories a lot.’ He said, ‘A lot of the people can’t understand your perspective, why you consider something that so many people would consider a tragedy and bad and terrible - you don’t look at it that way.’

"My story has evolved from moments like that: talking about my perspective and how it’s helped me, talking about the things I’ve learned and how I feel my experiences and the how the things I’ve been through in the past helped me through one of the toughest moments of my life."

 

(Would you say that your delivery is unique? Where does that voice come from?)

“Oh man (laughing), I don’t know where the heck that comes from. I’ve got to be honest. I have no idea where that comes from. I’ve always been a passionate individual, always been a reserved individual. But, you know, when moments happen, I get passionate. Even when I played ball, if you asked some of the guys I played with, I was never that up-front, rah-rah guy - but I had moments. When moments happened that I felt were important - like if I felt the guys were slacking during a workout ...

“When I played at UT, there was one workout where, man, it was after my injury. I was working out. I had a sling. I was beating a lot of the guys in the drills. My career was over at this point. I was still working out with my teammates, (wearing) a customized sling. I’d wrap it around my torso and my arm to keep it in place. I was beating a lot of the guys in drills. Like, I was beating them. They were slacking. They were really slacking. 

"I looked at Coach (Phillip Fulmer) and said, ‘Hey, Coach, can I call it up?’ Coach Fulmer said, ‘Sure, call it up.’ I called the team up. It was me, him, the coaching staff, the strength coaches, and I just got after them, man. I cried. It hurt me to my heart that guys were taking it for granted. I have moments like that. I’m not just an up-front, rah-rah guy, but moments I feel are important, I’m passionate about them.”

 

(Where do you think or hope that this speaking career goes from here?)

“You know, I have been approached with a lot of opportunities to work with a lot of teams in the player development space - from NFL to college. I just feel like it’s not the season right now. It’s not that I’m not honored that they’d consider me in that capacity, but I look at my life in this way now: I had planned to play football in the NFL since I was 7. I got close. I had an injury when I was a couple of games away from, you know, possibly making it. It changed my life. I had been planning for that ever since I was 7 years old.

“So now, the way I approach things, I feel as if I missed out on a lot - when I was chasing that. It was the only thing I wanted to do. So when the injury happened, I felt convicted. I thought, ‘Man, this is the only thing that you’ve been going after. Life happened and you didn’t get it.’ Now I try to be in the moment, whether it’s with my family or whether I’m speaking to a team, doing an interview. I try to appreciate the beauty and the richness of a moment, in a season or wherever I am in my life. I don’t look too far ahead. I don’t look too far behind. I just appreciate the journey, wherever it takes me. I just try to appreciate it and trust that I’m being guided by something greater than myself.”

Another crossroads, same optimism

Monday was my final day with 247Sports/CBS Sports as a national college football reporter. I’m again a free agent.

If that’s new news to you, you’re likely responding in one of three ways:

1. “Wait, who are you?” (Answer: Hi, I’m a veteran CFB reporter who has worked in sports media since I was in high school in the late 1990s.)

2. “Man, that was quick. How long were you even there?” (Answer: since November.)

3. “I didn’t even know you were at 247.” (An aside: A SportsCenter anchor whom I know and like sent me a Twitter DM last week to ask if I still worked at ESPN. I had to tell him I was part of an earlier, smaller purge. There’s a lot to keep up with these days, unfortunately.)

So, yeah, it was a short stay at 247. I thought I’d be there for many, many years, as I wrote upon starting the job.

I was stunned and deeply disappointed by the company's decision in March to abandon its national college football coverage, which had been an area of expansion in recent months. But that's 247's prerogative, and I'm genuinely thankful for the opportunity.

I wish the absolute best to everyone in the office in suburban Nashville. It’s a particularly special bond that the 247 in-house employees share; that’s evident from the second you walk in the door. I’m grateful that I was able to be a part of it, even for a little while, and for the new friendships made during that time.

--

I'm not entirely sure what's next, and that's not the worst thing.

I have some time and I'm looking forward to exploring what's out there, even if it isn't in the conventional sports media world in which I've dwelled for so long. It seems that world is rapidly changing, anyway.

I’d never lost a job in my entire life, and now I’ve lost two in the past nine months. My story has sadly become fairly common; my heart has ached for my friends at ESPN, SI and other shops who have recently joined this growing club, one that can be defined by pain, doubt and confusion. The industry is simply no longer what it was when I entered it about 15 years ago.

But that's OK, too. The past few months have shaken me in a profound way that has caused me to think very differently about my entire life - including my professional life. I want to tell people's stories, just as I did when I chose this career. Maybe it's through sports writing, maybe it's not. There are still plenty of ways to tell stories; it just requires more versatility and adaptability than ever before.

I want to open myself up to all sorts of things that I would never have considered as I worked up a ladder that ultimately led to ESPN and CBS/247. As I look back, everything was so formulaic. It was all linear, with ESPN (or something like it) at the end.

There’s no specific destination now. That’s sort of terrifying, but it’s more exhilarating.

Despite this season of adversity, I’ve enjoyed more good days than bad days. I’ve engaged in more self-reflection and received more motivation than if life continued in the status quo; I’ll use all this and be a better son, friend and human - and eventually, I hope, husband and father.

I guess sometimes you have to lose something - or some things - to find yourself, or at least to find a better version of yourself. I never expected to be in this position, but I’m fully at peace knowing that I’m exactly in the time and place meant for me. And I’ll run with my arms wide open toward the next opportunity.

There’s nothing about losing a job (or two) that can steal my joy and my belief that I’m moving toward a truer calling and a deeper sense of purpose.

--

As I said at the close of my ESPN tenure, the only thing I know is that I am not leaving Nashville. With each passing day, week and month, this city is entrenching itself as the home I was always meant to find. Being here truly fills me with hope. I’m fueled by so many uniquely inspiring encounters and adventures in this creative community.

I’ve known since I visited as a kid that it was a special, special place, and I cannot imagine letting go of that in the pursuit of a job.

If there’s anything I’ve learned since last summer, it’s that there’s no substitute for quality of life. For the longest time, I didn’t get that. I had it backward. I too often made ESPN the center of my existence, the planet around which everything spun. And that ultimately let me down. I want to rectify this, properly balancing the pieces of my life - including where I call home.

I can look back on my 20-ish months in Nashville and see, very clearly, that there’s a plan in motion. There have been thrilling opportunities and serendipitous connections that make this all feel very God-sent. It was a weird, winding road to find home, but I’m so very glad to be here.

I went back and figured out that I have lived in 12 different places since graduating from college in May 2003. Of those dozen places, I have only been in four of them for more than a year. The longest that I have lived in any one place is 4.5 years.

It’s time to change that.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the Predators won last week to reach the NHL’s Western Conference finals for the first time - and what a run it’s been! - I said that I had never loved anything as much as I love this city.

That’s something that’s been buried inside me since I was a kid. I’m so happy I’m here. I cannot wait to see what’s next.


"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." - Jeremiah 29:11

On another tough day in Bristol, Conn.:

My heart aches for those at ESPN - reportedly more than 100 employees - who are losing their jobs this week. It was a difficult experience for me last fall, when my contract wasn't renewed.

So my thoughts are with everyone at ESPN who will begin traveling that new path.

That said, while it's jarring today to so many who are learning this news, know that there's a certain freedom for many of those affected.

For me, the constant, looming fear of losing my job - and the taxing fight to keep it  - was worse than actually losing my job. Far worse.

I guess that's not unlike a lot of things in life: The anxiety of something happening is worse than the thing in actuality. Nothing to fear but fear itself, etc., right?

I have a friend going skydiving today. I'm afraid of heights, so there's no way in hell I'd ever do that. But, as I think about it, it's the lead-up to leaping from a plane that would terrify me. Once you're in the air, I imagine a lot of those sensations subside. I imagine you just let go and fly.

And that's how the final year or two went for me at ESPN: I uneasily sat on the airplane, afraid I'd be pushed out. I was fearful of the fall - and whether my 'chute would work.

As those fears gradually consumed me, I lost sight of priorities and, frankly, I became unhealthy. Bits and pieces of who I had been eroded in the effort to preserve my job. I'd worked my whole adult life to get to ESPN, so it was perhaps only natural that I didn't want to see that end - even if it was damaging me.

Once the inevitable finally did happen, I was met by myriad emotions that cycled initially by the minute ... then by the hour ... then by the day ... then intermittently over weeks and months. To this day, whenever I look back, I still feel pangs of anger and joy and everything in between.

But the central, lasting sense is gratitude for the experience - the moments and relationships that defined my time there. More than that, it's thankfulness for this newfound freedom. There's profound perspective and such an important time of self-reflection that comes along with it.

I truly believe I'm a better person and professional today because I was let go by ESPN.

It allowed me to figure out what I wanted to do instead of what I felt that I had to do.

So, I'm undoubtedly mourning the decisions made this week and the changed lives; it's all still very difficult. But I'm genuinely hopeful for my friends and former colleagues who will now find a truer professional purpose and a release from what was holding them captive.

-- Trav

Next Chapter: Update

No sense in burying the lede: As of today, I am joining 247Sports as a national college football writer.

In the midst of a uniquely challenging year, I genuinely remained optimistic and hopeful that a company and a job would surface that would be better than any position I had held previously. For myriad reasons, I truly believe 247 is that company and this is that job.

I feel certain I am hopping aboard a rocket ship already piercing the sky, bound for places unexplored in sports media. 247’s desire to expand its coverage of college football makes this a perfect fit at the perfect time.

And the fact that 247Sports is based just south of Nashville, in Brentwood, is no small footnote. As my wife and I continue to create a foundation for ourselves here, this helps us to build community - and a home - unlike anywhere we’ve ever been before.
I’m so excited to get back to work, so happy to be on this team. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

My wife, Brooke, has been the real MVP during this season of transition. I’m so grateful for her. And I cannot thank my family and friends enough for their love and encouragement as we’ve worked through this change. I’m so glad that we’ve arrived at this point.

It’s a new day. I walk into the warmth of it, embracing with hopefulness the opportunity in front of me. And I couldn’t have done it without your support and help. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart

“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” - Isaiah 40:31