By Steve Williams
Increasing speculation that Bruce Pearl could again be the men’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee is a hot topic at the water cooler these days.
I first wrote about it 10 months ago after Cuonzo Martin’s Vols lost to Alabama in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament (a defeat that kept them out of the NCAA tourney for the second straight year) and then bowed to Mercer in the first round of the NIT.
Many fans were grumbling then and it appears even more are now. They miss Pearl, who comes off his 3-year showcause for lying to the NCAA in August and will be eligible to return to coaching on the collegiate level.
If Martin doesn’t get the Vols in the Big Dance this season, a lot of fans are going to be clamoring for athletic director Dave Hart to replace him with Pearl.
Such talk had died down when Tennessee put together a four-game win streak and won its SEC road opener at LSU in impressive fashion. But it quickly started back up after that disappointing loss to Texas A&M in the conference home opener.
Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the speculation is here to stay. It’s not going away, not until this season’s story has been written.
What about other UT sports that have been less productive in the win column than Cuonzo’s program?
Who is on deck for the baseball job if Dave Serrano strikes out?
Like Martin, Serrano will be in his third season at Tennessee this spring. He’s still trying to get the Vols to Hoover, Ala., site of the SEC tourney, which is really not that great of an accomplishment, considering there are berths for 12 of 14 conference teams. Advancing to NCAA region play, with a chance to make it to Omaha, is the real achievement.
There has been less heat on Serrano because he faced a greater rebuilding job and did not have as tough of an act to follow as Martin. Serrano’s predecessor, Todd Raleigh, had a losing record and failed to get UT to Hoover in four seasons.
Serrano is 46-61 overall and 16-42 in SEC games after two years.
I have Chris Burke in the on-deck circle. He was among the top candidates for the UT job when interim AD Joan Cronan selected Serrano.
The popular 33-year-old Burke was a two-time All-America infielder at Tennessee and the 2001 SEC Player of the Year when he led the Vols to the College World Series. He was officially inducted into UT’s Baseball Hall of Fame last week. In his major league career with the Astros, Diamondbacks and Padres, he played every position but catcher and pitcher.
Burke lives in Louisville, Ky., where he has a baseball instructional facility. He’s also a college baseball analyst for ESPN and the lead instructor for magazine Inside Pitch.
UT’s once-proud track and field program is past due for a change. Since J.J. Clark was named director of a combined men’s and women’s program in 2010, the Tennessee men’s teams have scored a total of 8.75 points in the past four NCAA outdoor championships. Last season, the Vols only scored 0.75 points on a seventh place tie in the pole vault and the Lady Vols failed to score.
The Vols won their third NCAA outdoor title in 2001 and still had a top 5 team as late as 2007. They also have fallen off in SEC meets, having finished 9th, 8th, 10th and 11th in the conference from 2010 through 2013.
Are there internal problems inside UT’s volleyball program? Four players transferred about this time last year, including two-time All-American Kelsey Robinson. After winning the SEC title in 2011 and going 22-5 and making the NCAA field in 2012, the Lady Vols tumbled to 9-23 overall and 1-16 in SEC play in 2013 under longtime head coach Rob Patrick, a past two-time National Coach of the Year.
In replacing legendary Coach Pat Summitt, Holly Warlick did an outstanding job in her first season with the Lady Vols last year, but this season’s team has been inconsistent of late and is 4-3 since starting out with an 11-game win streak. Warlick’s squad also has dropped to No. 12 in the latest AP rankings, below standards for the UT women’s program.
Warlick’s squad will have a chance to make some noise on the national scene tonight (Jan. 20) when undefeated and No. 2 ranked Notre Dame visits.
In their recent slide, the Lady Vols lost at Stanford, were defeated by LSU at home and lost at rival Vanderbilt by 11. The UT women only won by a 67-63 margin Thursday night at Mississippi State, a program that is an all-time 0-35 against the Lady Vols.
Is there reason for concern? If UT did have to make a coaching change in the future, my top candidates at this time would include former Lady Vols now in the coaching ranks – Nikki Caldwell (LSU). Jody Adams (Wichita State) and Kellie Jolly Harper (Missouri State).
And UT’s AD should keep an eye on Tyler Summitt, Pat’s son, who is in his second season as an assistant coach at Marquette. He will be a head coach someday.