Arkansas State’s Butch Jones has an anguished history with OU

Arkansas State’s Butch Jones has an anguished history with OU

He almost beat OU with Cincinnati and Tennessee. Arkansas State isn’t likely to come close Saturday.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 1, 2023, 10:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 1, 2023, 10:00am CDT

Football coaches like to say they don’t look back. But most do indeed glance at the rearview mirror from time to time.

Arkansas State’s Butch Jones is no exception.

Jones brings his Red Wolves to Owen Field on Saturday, where the Sooners are 35½-point favorites.

OU isn’t likely to be on the ropes. But twice, Jones had Bob Stoops’ Sooners in trouble.

In 2010, OU survived Cincinnati 31-29 in the NFL Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium.

In 2015, OU survived Tennessee 31-24 in double overtime, at the Volunteers’ historic Neyland Stadium.

Both teams were coached by Jones.

“Great challenge,” Jones said of Arkansas State playing at OU. “But also a great opportunity.”

Those 2010 and 2015 games also were great opportunity.


2010 was Jones’ first season at Cincinnati, after Brian Kelly went to Notre Dame after leading the Bearcats to back-to-back major bowls. 2015 was Jones’ third year at Tennessee, and he entered that Oklahoma game with a 13-13 Volunteer record, which included a closer-than-it-seems 34-10 loss at OU in 2014.

Jones admitted he has pondered what victory over the Sooners would have meant.

“It would have been a monumental win,” Jones said of the game in Cincinnati. “We had some missed opportunities. It was a hard-fought game. Obviously, we came up a little bit short.”

UC’s D.J. Woods fumbled near the OU 5-yard line in the first half, then fumbled a punt in the fourth quarter with the Bearcats down just two points.

But the game in Knoxville was a great Sooner escape. Tennessee led OU 17-3 in the fourth quarter, before a stirring rally produced overtime. Mayfield scored on a fourth-down run to keep the Sooners alive in the first overtime, then OU won it in the second overtime on Zack Sanchez’s game-ending interception.

“I refer to that game as the Baker Mayfield coming out party,” Jones said of OU’s three-time all-American quarterback. “That’s where Baker Mayfield became Baker Mayfield.

“He willed that football team to win. There was a number of occasions, whether it was third down or fourth, we had ’em stopped, and he found a way to break tackles.”

Jones went on to coach the Vols to a 9-4 record that year, then the same in 2016. But Tennessee slipped to 4-8 in 2017, and Jones was fired. Would a meteoric start to the 2015 season have changed the Volunteers’ fortunes?

Maybe. We’ll never know. But this we know: Tennessee football seemed back that night. Neyland Stadium roared with 102,455 fans producing record-setting decibel levels. 

It’s not a far leap to see Tennessee football taking off with a victory over the Sooners.

“That could have been a defining game,” Jones said. “Also, it was a great barometer for how far we had come.”

Instead, Jones never really got over the hump. And now he’s coaching in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where decibel levels are not a thing.

“This is our fourth time taking over” a program, said Jones, who also coached at Central Michigan.

Progress has been slow. The Red Wolves were 2-10 and 3-9 his first two seasons, with victories over Louisiana-Monroe (twice), Massachusetts, Central Arkansas and Grambling State.

Jones said his goal is to “methodically build the program. In today’s world, I think that’s a challenge. Now it’s getting to a point where you build teams and not programs.”

Still, Jones has recruited well. His Arkansas State classes the last two years rank second and first in the Sun Belt Conference.

The Sun Belt has made great strides in recent years; with Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati having left the American Conference for the Big 12, the Sun Belt has a chance to be the best league outside the Power Five.

And with the advent of the 12-team College Football Playoff next season, giving access to conferences like the Sun Belt, a school like Arkansas State can dream.

“That’s something we talk about in recruiting,” Jones said. “That’s a vision of mine. To have a legitimate and realistic opportunity, I think that’s great.”

Jones is a good football coach. His first Central Michigan recruiting class included J.J. Watt and Antonio Brown. Jones also recruited offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who became the overall No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

But Jones appears to have no Watts or Browns or Fishers on his 2023 Arkansas State team. Seems likely Jones won’t be looking back on this OU game.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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