By Alex Norman
During the Derek Dooley era, the Tennessee football program suffered through one self-inflicted public relations mistake after another.
From Dooley’s lack of public discipline with regards to quarterback Tyler Bray, to his goofy press conferences, to the lack of relationship building with high school football coaches, to the “Opportunity Is Nowhere” door fiasco inside the UT football complex, it seemed like the errors would never stop.
There was the Bar Knoxville brawl in 2010 and Cam Clear’s laptop theft in 2012. And following the Vols historic loss to Kentucky in November in 2011, when recruits were de-committing and assistant coaches were fleeing like they were trying to get on the last plane out of Saigon, Dooley refused to make any public comment of any kind for 38 days. Only when forced by Athletic Director Dave Hart to speak to the media did Dooley do so.
When you are the face of the program and making millions of dollars you can’t go five and a half weeks without talking publicly.
In contrast, the past 27 months has been fairly error free in the public relations area for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. But the decision that he will have to make in the weeks to come could change that.
Back in September, Jones dismissed running back Treyvon Paulk from the football program for what he called at the time a “personal conduct issue.”
In fact, Paulk had been involved in an alleged domestic assault with an ex-girlfriend. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office said in a report that Paulk “became very agitated and struck her in the mouth with his fist.”
The woman refused medical treatment but was found to have cuts on her lips. She refused medical treatment and would not press charges, so Paulk would not be arrested.
Jones didn’t talk much about it last fall, but said at the time that “Every circumstance is different, and I’m a father figure… Unfortunately, some incidents are out of my control, and some incidents you try to teach from.”
Fast forward to February, with spring practice only a few weeks away and Tennessee’s running back depth an issue, and rumors have picked up steam regarding a return for Paulk to the Vols.
Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that, “It’s an ongoing process, and we’ll continue to evaluate that situation as time continues to move on, but right now he’s still not a part of our football team in terms of any team-related activities or anything.”
Paulk has stayed enrolled at UT since he was kicked off the team. He doesn’t attend team meetings. He doesn’t talk part in workouts. He isn’t anywhere to be seen in the UT football complex. But it isn’t a stretch to say that Jones would love to find a way to bring back a former four-star prospect to help his depleted running back corps.
JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara will be taking part in his first spring practice at Tennessee. Rising sophomore Jalen Hurd will be limited due to shoulder surgery.
And that’s pretty much it.
The question for Jones is simple and complicated at the same time. Is it worth the risk, and the public relations hit to bring Paulk back?
Jones received mostly kudos for how he handled the sexual assault allegations for former Vols AJ Johnson and Michael Williams. They were immediately suspended when the alleged incident came to light in November, and neither returned to the Vols for the January bowl game. Both would be arrested in February.
Paulk was never arrested… never charged… and has not had a publicly known incident since then.
But we are living in a new world when it comes to off the field issues. The Ray Rice assault, and the subsequent tone deaf response from the National Football League, made all sports leagues re-evaluate how they deal with athletes accused of such things.
Tennessee fans are mostly pro-Butch following a bowl game win and another consensus top-5 recruiting class.
Will they be so if a player that allegedly punched a woman is allowed to once again represent the Vols?