Here we go, Tennessee basketball fans. Off into the college coaching wilderness. Off to find some guy with Bruce Pearl’s genius, however flawed, and Billy Graham’s goodness. Too bad last summer’s news of John Wooden’s demise was not greatly exaggerated.
Regardless, someone has to take over for Pearl, who took the Volunteers to places — No. 1 in 2008 and the Elite Eight a year ago — the Big Orange program never had been before his six seasons atop Rocky Top. Of course, UT also never previously has found itself in so much trouble with the NCAA Infractions Committee.
Feel free to link those two events, if you so choose.
But the Big Orange program will soldier on without Bruce Almighty. It might even soon be better off if current athletic director Mike Hamilton finds the right man to replace Pearl, difficult though that seems at the moment for those Volniacs still more bedazzled by his entrance than betrayed by his exit.
In fact, in terms of personality and purpose, it might serve Hamilton well to deliver the basketball Vols a Derek Dooley-esque clone for hoops. Someone driven but principled. Someone young yet old. Someone eager to shine the spotlight on them rather than him.
This is not a swipe at Pearl’s persona, or ego, or coaching style. Six years ago the Vols needed a salesman, whether his wares be snake oil or Bibles. They needed Elmer Gantry with a clipboard, and that’s what Pearl gave them, right down to painting his bare chest during an unforgettable upstaging of Pat Summitt at a Lady Vols game against Duke.
Some people swear ESPN created ESPNU for the former UT coach. You could get your Pearl jams 24-7-365.
But with Pearl, more became less. He never won an SEC tournament, lost seven of his last nine games against Kentucky and failed to win 20 his final year on the job while finishing fifth out of six in the SEC East.
You can say there were hugely extenuating circumstances and you’d be right. But who caused those circumstances? Who apparently broke an NCAA recruiting rule four days after weeping before the television cameras to explain his original professional sins?
For a guy who’d struggled and stewed all those years in the coaching backwoods — Southern Indiana, Wisconsin-Milwaukee — for his first big break, it sure didn’t take Pearl long to guarantee his return to the hinterlands.
In fact, it almost makes you wonder if Tennessee basketball isn’t a bit like Kentucky football. No UK coach since Bear Bryant exited in the early 1950s for Texas A&M has left the Bluegrass for a better college gig. The same could be said of the Vols with the possible exception of Kevin O’Neill, if you’d like to argue that DePaul is at least a lateral move from UT.
So who can change it? As mentioned Tuesday, you start with Butler’s Brad Stevens. Make him say no. Give him at least $2.5 million reasons a year not to.
After that, reverse field. Talk to Missouri’s Mike Anderson. Forget that he has the personality of coarse sandpaper. Forget that his players will come complete with cornrows, dreadlocks, headbands and everything else. His teams play faster than Pearl’s. They never take a night off on defense, and his agent — Memphis resident Jimmy Sexton — once roomed with Reggie White at UT.
Asked about rumors that Anderson was about to sign a contract extension at Mizzou, Sexton told a Memphis radio station Tuesday that “nothing is imminent” but that he expects “some resolution in the next few days.”
If Hamilton is smart, he’ll be contacting Sexton in the next few hours.
Three other names that aren’t getting as much mention as they should: Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, who may do more with less on a yearly basis than anyone; Boston Celtics assistant, former New Jersey Nets head coach and former UT assistant (under Kevin O’Neill) Lawrence Frank; and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, whose team hosts College of Charleston in the NIT quarterfinals tonight.
Given his previous hire of Lane Kiffin because of his NFL ties, Frank’s NBA experience and knowledge of the UT program might appeal to Hamilton.
As for Marshall, he probably should have had the job when Doug Dickey hired Buzz Peterson. A Greenwood, S.C., native, he knows the South, knows how to recruit the South from his days at Winthrop and badly wanted the job when Peterson got it.
Finally, there’s Brad Brownell, who just wrapped up his first year at Clemson. Only 42, he’s won at least 20 games for six straight seasons and taken three different schools — UNC-Wilmington, Wright State and Clemson — to the NCAA tourney.
He might not be the most glamorous choice Hamilton could make, but 10 years from now he might be the best, much as Dooley may become.
And unlike Pearl, if Brownell is gone in 10 years it won’t be because the NCAA forced him out, but rather because he became the first coach in UT history to leave for a bigger job, if such a thing is possible by then.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...