Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl pleads his case with an official at McKenzie Arena in 2007. Staff Photo by Tim Barber
We’ll begin today’s column on March 20, 1994. That’s the Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg, Fla., that Kevin O’Neill coached Marquette to a 75-63 victory over Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats and into the Sweet 16.
That’s also the day that former UT athletic director Doug Dickey apparently decided that any coach who could knock Pitino out of the NCAA tourney was good enough to coach the Vols.
Three years later, having won 36 and lost 47, O’Neill left Knoxville before dawn one morning to take the Northwestern job without telling a single person beyond a UT fan who recognized the coach at a gas station on his way to the airport.
Fast-forward to March 19, 2005. Bruce Pearl had just shocked the college hoops world by advancing Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16 following an 83-75 win over Pearl’s alma mater, Boston College. He would soon be named Tennessee’s coach, replacing the ousted Buzz Peterson.
Now move along two more years to 2007, a March 17 afternoon inside Rupp Arena, where Texas A&M and its hotshot coach Billy Gillispie are about to knock off Pitino, who now coached Louisville.
Apparently hoping to send a double-secret message to Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart that afternoon, Gillispie wore a UK blue tie, despite the Aggies wearing maroon and UK still employing Tubby Smith as its coach.
But when Smith bolted for Minnesota the next week, Gillispie swiftly became Barnhart’s top target. Alas for Big Blue, that win over Louisville remains Gillispie’s last in NCAA play. He was done after two years at UK, winning 40 and losing 27 before being replaced in the spring of 2009 by John Calipari. Gillispie was later arrested near Lexington on a DUI. Out of coaching the past two years, he announced Wednesday as the new coach at Texas Tech.
So what does all this mean as Tennessee now begins its search to replace Pearl? It means that any given NCAA tournament’s hot coaching commodity can become a hit or a miss in his next job.
It means that before the Big Orange Nation decides it can’t do without Richmond’s Chris Mooney, VCU’s Shaka Smart or Marquette’s Buzz Williams, it needs to remember how deeply it fell for O’Neill. Or how wrongly Kentucky enmbraced Gillispie.
This isn’t to say Pearl wasn’t a great hire, as witness his six NCAA appearances, No. 1 national ranking in 2008 and last year’s school-first Elite Eight appearance that ended two points shy of the Final Four.
Whatever anyone thinks of him today in the wake of NCAA infractions that cost him his job, if the man who replaces Pearl can average the same 24-10 record he did — every season ending in the NCAA tourney — his successor will have done just fine.
But for every Pearl who uses an unexpected Sweet 16 run to land a plum job in a BCS league, there are probably at least two or three O’Neills and Gillispies to remind us that one size never fits all.
Then there’s the story of Roy Williams.
When Kansas plucked Williams from North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith’s bench in the summer of 1988, his previous brush with a Division I head job had been to turn down our University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs in 1985 in order to remain a Tar Heel assistant.
Nor was the Jayhawk program he was about to take over wildly different from today’s Tennessee mess. Yes, KU had just won the national championship under Larry Brown with considerable help from All-American Danny Manning. But Brown had bolted for the NBA, Manning was done, too, and the NCAA was about to ban the Jayhawks from the 1989 NCAA tourney for rules violations.
Enter Williams, whose only head coaching experience had been at the high school level. By the time he left KU 15 years later, the Jayhawks had been to four Final Fours and two title games. Since returning to UNC as head coach for the 2003-04 season, Williams has been to three more Final Fours and won two national championships.
That’s seven Final Fours and two national titles for a guy who never coached a mid-major university to the Sweet 16.
Just something for the Big Orange Nation to think about if the guy UT ultimately hires isn’t on anyone’s radar today.
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 ...