By Alex Norman
It was March 2005. The Tennessee Volunteers had just hired Bruce Pearl as their new men’s basketball coach, replacing Buzz Peterson.
Buzz was literally the nicest guy you would ever want to meet, but simply wasn’t a good coach at high Division 1 level. I’m convinced that former Vols athletic director Doug Dickey hired him because his name was Buzz and because he was Michael Jordan’s high school roommate.
After four years of “BuzzBall,” expectations were pretty low in Big Orange Country. There was no way that Pearl would be able to turn things around, and especially not in a quick manner.
But that December they upset 6th ranked Texas in Austin, which opened a lot of eyes in the college basketball world. The next month, Pearl’s Vols upset a Florida team that would have been ranked number one the following week (and would go on to win the next two national championships).
I remember thinking that no matter what Tennessee would accomplish in the future, it would never get better than the atmosphere at Thompson-Boling Arena that evening, simply because of where the Vols had been as a program.
Thompson-Boling Arena was, as former athletic director Mike Hamilton said, an untapped resource. It was a half empty cave with no energy before Pearl arrived. Now, it was a sold out building that would eventually great a much needed makeover and companion practice facility, thanks in large part to Pearl’s success.
In his first five years, the Vols won SEC titles, earned a number one national ranking, made it to the Sweet 16 three times and to the Elite 8 once. They had two very strong chances to get to the Final Four, blowing a huge lead to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 in 2007 (UT would have beaten Memphis two days later) and falling to Michigan State in the final seconds in 2010 with a Final Four trip at stake.
Off the court, Pearl was the charismatic every man that was always willing to speak to a group, sign an autograph or take a picture with a fan. In an age when many coaches would rather have a root canal than interact with the folks that pay their exorbitant salaries (see Saban, Nick), Pearl was the ultimate ambassador for his team and his University.
But then came the fall from grace. An NCAA investigation of Pearl found that he lied about hosting an off campus BBQ for recruit Aaron Craft. Pearl would eventually be fired and handed a three year “show cause” penalty by the NCAA to Pearl for those mistruths.
The dream was dead…
Hamilton went out and found Pearl’s replacement, hiring Cuonzo Martin from Missouri State. Martin is a man with a challenging life story that is almost universally liked and respected in the world of college basketball.
In the past year and a half, Martin has done a lot of good things. Off the court he is active in social media, makes public appearances, and by all accounts a terrific representative for the program. On the court, he led an undermanned to the NIT in his first season in Knoxville, but this season has been a struggle, and a postseason berth is not a sure thing.
Perhaps the biggest issue isn’t the wins or losses right now for Tennessee basketball… but the fact that the Vols aren’t exactly putting an exciting product on the court.
Tennessee is a football school. Always has been, always will be. Something special is required to get fans to buy in. They did when Ray Mears was coach. They did when Bruce Pearl was coach.
But it didn’t happen when Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Jerry Green or Buzz Peterson were running the show. And when the Vols failed to crack 40 points, as happened in losses at Georgetown and Virginia, it gave fans a reason to turn off their television set or not show up at Thompson-Boling Arena.
More than a few Memphis fans found tickets during their Knoxville meeting with the Vols, as did Kentucky fans. Isn’t that the kind of thing that doomed Phillip Fulmer?
I had a friend ask me if the Vols would pursue Pearl after his three-year “show cause” penalty ends in 2014. I said no, and that it is still way too early to speculate about something like that.
But even the mere mention of that long shot possibility shows that for some fans, all is not right in the world of Tennessee basketball.