Wiedmer: Time to let readers pick UT's coach

Wiedmer: Time to let readers pick UT's coach

April 20th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches his team during practice for the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game in Indianapolis.

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches his team...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Until this past Wednesday morning, the only two things Heath Claiborne, Robert Pomeroy and Jamey Roberts had in common were (1) they all had signed an online petition to bring back former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl as soon as possible, and (2) none of them wanted Cuonzo Martin to coach the Volunteers past this season.

Believe the petition's tabulations and there were 36,066 more just like them.

But when a certain sports writer decided to label all those petitioners "idiots" in his column regarding Martin's gold rush to the left coast for the California Bears opening, Claiborne, Pomeroy and Roberts justifiably banded together like brothers over my crass characterization of them.

Through their emails and others I was labeled a jerk, a tool, out of touch and, returning to the idiot line, "It takes one to know one." Touche!

But after considering how the Easter Bunny might correct such a wrong, I asked them to pretty much write today's column by explaining their reasons for the petition, their hopes for whom UT athletic director Dave Hart will choose to run the Vols, and how they think they'll feel when Bruce Au-mighty returns next season as Auburn's coach.

Hart and the rest of the UT brass should pay close attention to their responses.

"In a sentence, Bruce changed everything," wrote Pomeroy, who went to UT when Buzz Peterson coached the Vols and now lives in Nashville. "While we fans had to endure Mike Hamilton's cartoon character leadership in the dismissal of [Phillip] Fulmer, hire of Kiffin, then Dooley, Bruce was a source of pride for UT. With Bruce I truly feel a Final Four was in our future. I look at Florida, and think that could have been Tennessee under Bruce."

Yet despite this year's Sweet 16 run under Martin, none of the three ever felt so much as a tinge of those feelings for Pearl's replacement.

"For me, the petition wasn't so much about Martin as bringing Bruce back," said Roberts, who lives in Athens, Tenn. "When that petition got to 36,000, I thought that that's enough people to fill Thompson-Boling Arena close to two times. Maybe that will make somebody listen. Even when we went to the Sweet 16, I still thought we needed a change. I wanted us to play like Bruce's teams did -- pressure defense, lots of offense."

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart answers questions about Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin leaving to be head coach at California during a news conference.

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart answers questions about...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Wrote Maryville resident Claiborne: "Martin was boring. He was never a good fit. His defensive-minded, [Gene] Keady brand of basketball had little margin for forgiveness. Winning, of course, would have tempered this issue (see Butler). Martin's assistants were not stellar. In fact they were weak. The recruiting was mediocre at best."

Cynics might argue that the Big Orange Nation has turned a guy who never got past the Elite Eight and got fired for NCAA wrongs into the second coming of John Wooden.

But at UT, which has never reached a men's Final Four and has gone to the Elite Eight only once (thanks to Pearl), Pearl's six NCAA tourneys in his six seasons in charge are the benchmark for basketball success.

"I'll never forget when we played Kentucky in 2010," Roberts recalled. "They had John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. When [Tennessee's] Scotty Hopson made a late 3, I almost knocked my girlfriend (Camara Chancellor) down the steps. But that's what UT basketball was under Bruce. It was alway exciting."

But Bruce Ball is now colored Auburn orange and blue.

"I already feel regret," Claiborne replied through an email. "If another mediocre hire is made, Pearl will haunt Tennessee as long as he is in the SEC."

Added Roberts, who has a "Power T" tattooed on his left shoulder ("My only tattoo," he said): "I think half the crowd will boo Bruce, and half will give him a standing ovation. It definitely won't be like Oct. 25, though, when Lane Kiffin comes in with Alabama. They'll need Alabama state troopers to protect him. It won't be pretty."

In discussing the problems Joe B. Hall faced in following Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, the late, great Al McGuire once said, "You never want to be the guy who replaces a legend. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces a legend."

Meager though its basketball history may be, the Vols must now find someone to replace the guy who replaced their legend.

"Shaka [Smart, VCU's coach] would be my No. 1 choice, but I don't know how realistic that choice would be," wrote Pomeroy, who also believed Dayton's Archie Miller and Colorado's Tad Boyle might be out of reach. "With those names eliminated, I would lean my preference towards [Nebraska's Tim] Miles but would not argue with [Southern Miss's Donnie] Tyndall."

Said Roberts: "Maybe because of his dad, the name that jumps out at me is [Minnesota's] Richard Pitino. He plays aggressive defense and he runs and guns on offense, just like his dad [Louisville's Rick Pitino]."

But it was a general observation from Claiborne that rings most true.

"There is a proven formula in Ray Mears and Bruce Pearl that works at Tennessee," he wrote. "The coach needs to have a little P.T. Barnum in him. He has to run a fast-tempo offense and be a salesman for the school. He needs to have charisma and engage the fan base."

At the risk of offending Hart and the UT brass, only an idiot would ignore those words after the division and dissension of the past three winters.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.