Posted by Matt Jones
Tennessee’s reported decision to part ways with Bruce Pearl is the cause of much chagrin in Knoxville, and rightfully so. While getting rid of an acknowledged NCAA liar is completely defensible from a moral and institutional standpoint, for the Tennessee basketball program, losing Pearl is a virtual death sentence.
Part of the reason so many Tennessee fans have been expressing dissatisfaction with the Pearl decision is that they know the reality of the Volunteer basketball program’s status on the national landscape. Simply put, Tennessee is a decidedly mediocre BCS job and will not be an attractive opening to virtually any coach the administration would wish to target. This statement may seem controversial after Pearl’s recent success, but it is reality.
Simply put, Bruce Pearl made Tennessee basketball, not the other way around. Historically, Tennessee’s basketball program has been a mid-level contender in the SEC and an afterthought nationally. Except for a short time period during the “Bernie and Ernie” era of Ray Mears’ tenure and Pearl’s impressive run, Tennessee has never been anything close to a basketball powerhouse. Prior to Pearl’s tenure, Tennessee had won the SEC only five times since World War II and been to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 only three times in the school’s history. To call Tennessee basketball prior to Pearl mediocre is to be very generous with the word.
But the problem isn’t just history, it is also the current reality Tennessee faces. In the immediate future, the Vols are looking at a major downgrade in talent beginning next season. The Vols have six seniors graduating and two other major contributors, Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, who have the ability, and now likely the desire, to depart early for the NBA draft. The two four star recruits for next season, Chris Jones and Kevin Ware, have both already indicated they may go elsewhere and if al the departures take place, next year’s team will struggle to remain competitive. Whoever takes over the Tennessee program will have to immediately compete in the difficult SEC East with a program that is light years away in talent from the team that went to the Elite Eight last season.
Plus, the specter of potential NCAA sanctions weighs heavy. The NCAA could see Pearl’s violation as simply a personal one and be lenient. The actual infraction was relatively minor and the decision to lie had more to do with him than the university. But this isn’t Tennessee’s only NCAA issue and an incoming coach won’t know the outcome of the NCAA’s decision before accepting the job. Whatever coach chooses to take the job must do so knowing the possibility of depleted talent and NCAA restrictions...not exactly a recipe for a quick start to replace a popular figure.
But most importantly, even in the best of times the Tennessee job is not nearly as appealing as it seemed during the Pearl years. Tennessee is a football school that cares about basketball secondarily, and depending on how Pat Summit’s team is doing, maybe even less than that. While Knoxville is home to a big arena and above-average facilities, it isn’t a program that sells itself. There is virtually no local talent base and the best players the state produces are in Memphis, meaning a new coach will have to fight Josh Pastner on his home turf to get any of their services.
The area around Tennessee has some talent, but also much better programs seeking to grab it. Tennessee borders Kentucky and North Carolina, only home to four of the seven best programs in the history of college basketball. That means that not only is every local recruiting battle a road game for Tennessee, it will often be against the heaviest of the heavyweights.
Tennessee has shown that it will pay its coach a great deal of money, but not such a sum that it can steal other top of the line coaches from major programs. The Vols have to do what most of the other mid-level BCS programs must to do to with an opening, hire an assistant or a head coach at the mid-major level. That is the route they were forced to take with Wade Houston (Louisville assistant), Buzz Peterson (Appalachian State/Tulsa) and Bruce Pearl (Milwaukee) in the past and is likely their path this time as well.
And with all those structural obstacles in place, Tennessee must also deal with the fact that it will not be looking for a coach in a vacuum. There are other openings in college basketball and arguably, many are more attractive than the one in Knoxville. If you were an aspiring coach, wouldn’t you prefer a chance to coach in the historical basketball triangle at NC State, where a national championship has been won in the last 20 years at Arkansas or in the fertile recruiting ground of Georgia Tech? What exactly does Tennessee offer (assuming equal money) that these schools do not? It is hard to imagine that a coach with multiple opportunities this offseason, like VCU’s Shaka Smart, or a solid future at a rising program like Brad Stevens at Butler, would choose to go coach the Vols over a chance to captain these more attractive ships.
All of this means that when picking its coach, Tennessee will have to do what most BCS schools do with a new basketball hire, take a chance on an unproven coach. Maybe that coach will pay off and become a star, as happened when the school hired Bruce Pearl the last time. But success with such a decision is far from certain and the standard to which the new coach will be compared is high. The reality is that with today’s decision, Tennessee will go from one of the top 15-20 coaches and recruiters in America who placed the school consistently in the SEC’s top three, to a likely unknown who will face a depleted roster and potential NCAA violations on the horizon. That might make me protest too.
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