Blog Entry

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

Posted on: March 21, 2011 8:10 pm
Edited on: March 21, 2011 9:37 pm

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.

More NCAA tournament coverage
Category: NCAAB

Since: Mar 22, 2011
Posted on: March 22, 2011 5:49 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

Yeah I can't believe he would include Arkansas. I mean they only have as many as Final Fours as Tennessee has Sweet Sixteens. How dare he?! I mean Tennessee has a 20,000 seat arena! Who cares that Arkansas has a much nicer 20,000 seat arena called the Basketball Palace of Mid-America?! This writer must be crazy! But Tennessee has VERY deep pockets. I bet Walmart, Tyson Chicken, J.B. Hunt, etc are just shaking in their boots worrying about getting in a bidding war with Tennessee.......Wait, that Arkansas job is starting to sound a little better huh? And thats not including the National Championship and the top 5 recruiting class. WOW! 

Since: Nov 3, 2007
Posted on: March 22, 2011 5:29 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

 Heck even the great Roy Williams didn't sign a single recruit after John Wall gave him the snub.  oh I forgot, according to Ole Roy he never offered Wall a scholarship.

You have the nerve to call someone out for what you say is inaccurate information and then begin to spout BS about John Wall.  Wall never had an offer from UNC.  It was reported his mother, who lived in Raleigh, wanted him to stay in the area.  Wall waited until May 19 to commit to Kentucky, and I suspect he was waiting for a Carolina offer that never came.  For the purpose of establishing your lack of knowledge of the subjet for others,  here's Wall's Scout page giving his wish list.  Notice he was interested in UNC but had no offer. 
Here's his Rivals page, same result, Mr Knows-it. 

One more thing.  Tennessee created their own problem when they screwed Jerry Green.  He was there for four years from '97-'98 until '00-'01.  He won at least 20 games every year he was there.  They won 26 and went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2000.  He was the first coach to EVER take Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament four years in a row but Tennessee fired him.  Everybody knew Pearl was a risky hire when they went after him.  

Since: Mar 22, 2011
Posted on: March 22, 2011 4:32 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

Mr. Jones your article is a joke......mediocre? Unattractive? Really?! Can you say Top 5 in attendance in the country, best facilities, 20k seat arena, loyal fan base, very deep pockets? Most coaches coach for 2 reasons, love of the game and give me 10 coaches that would turn down 3 mil a year 9 out of 10 would snatch it in a heartbeat. Its obvious you know nothing about TN basketball. The only thing you can agree with in your article is the possible sanctions and Bruce making the mens team what it is now, but everything thing else is unfounded, sloppy and to quote yourself, mediocre! I absolutely cannot believe for one second you threw Arkansas in there, WOW! You should probably cover something other than sports

Since: Mar 31, 2007
Posted on: March 22, 2011 4:17 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

This is about what I would expect from a dyed-in-the-wool University of Kentucky fanatic. 

Since: Jun 5, 2008
Posted on: March 22, 2011 9:19 am

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

Bruce should not have been fired. Our AD Mike Hamilton is a complete joke and frankly how he continues to hold on to his job is just mind boggling.
Was Bruce a saint? No but I think overall Tennessee would have been better off weathering the storm with him.
Mike Hamilton has ruined Tennessee's football program and now he has ruined the basketball program as well. Thank god Pat Summit is so legendary otherwise I'm sure Hamilton would find a way to screw that up as well.
I have never called for another persons job but Mike Hamilton is an embarrassment to Tennessee.

Since: Dec 29, 2009
Posted on: March 22, 2011 7:05 am

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

Maybe Tennessee should go after John Pelphrey? Nah! He wouldn't be interested. Tongue out This whole Pearl saga has been like a Shakespearian tragedy and it will take years for the Vols to recover. That's a shame for SEC basketball. The only thing I can't understand is how in the world did Hamilton keep his job as AD? That is a continuing overhang that should scare away many potential replacements.

Since: Mar 21, 2011
Posted on: March 21, 2011 11:27 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

FYI Mr. wasn't the Bernie and Ernie IS the "Ernie and Bernie Show"!  I figure you collected a bunch of data from wikipedia and that makes you appear a Tennessee basketball historian.  If you are going to pretend to know all about the history of the program at least have your cheat sheets correct.

The truth has been spoken

P.S.  basketball is not football in that only so many kids can play at any given school.  That is why you see the emergence of a Bulter, Gonzaga, VCU, etc.  Heck even the great Roy Williams didn't sign a single recruit after John Wall gave him the snub.  oh I forgot, according to Ole Roy he never offered Wall a scholarship.

Since: Feb 26, 2007
Posted on: March 21, 2011 10:52 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

What does Tennessee have to offer? a 20,000+ seat arena, great practice facilities, a chance to play in one of the top 6 conferences, a decent recruiting pipeline, and one thing NC state and Arkansas can't offer. A good foundation to become the face of the program without having to be second to valvano or richardson.

Since: Jan 15, 2008
Posted on: March 21, 2011 10:48 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

As a Vol fan I cringe at how true and well-written this is.

Since: Jan 28, 2008
Posted on: March 21, 2011 10:32 pm

Tennessee basketball in trouble post-Pearl

Matt, when CBS brought you on, I wasn't sure what to expect.  You're cranking out great articles, and you've got a good sense of humor that always helps in sportswriting.  Keep up the good work!

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or