Wiedmer: Dave Hart's seat now UT's hot one

Wiedmer: Dave Hart's seat now UT's hot one

April 22nd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Louisiana Tech head coach Michael White addresses his team at a game against UTC at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

No 37-year-old men's basketball coach at Louisiana Tech who's failed to reach the NCAA tournament in three years on the job should ever turn down a coaching vacancy at the University of Tennessee. Never. Ever.

Yet if that's what Bulldogs boss Michael White did, as has been reported, the Volunteers' national image is worse than we imagined.

This isn't to say that White was overwhelmingly the best hire UT athletic director Dave Hart's committee of one (himself) could have made or will make going forward. Butch Jones seems to be turning out all right on the football front, and he was reportedly no better than Hart's fourth choice behind Jon Gruden, Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong.

It is to say, however, that reports that Hart has turned to Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall and that the Golden Eagles coach will accept the job need to be correct. This search doesn't need to progress past Tyndall. If it does, the Big Orange Nation might be right to wonder if Hart's position shouldn't be opened also.

Either way, for Tennessee fans who'd held out hope of attracting Dayton's Archie Miller, Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart or Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, about the only thing worse than White's rejection would be finding out that former coach Bruce Pearl secretly passed on returning to the Vols before heading to Auburn.

(Just kidding. I think.)

All of which sadly brings us back to the 36,069 UT fans who signed the petition to "Bring Back Bruce" this past winter while now former coach Cuonzo Martin was still struggling to have his third Vols team find itself before it got it together for its eventual Sweet 16 run.

As misguided as that petition may have been, you can't half-blame the fans. For those too young to remember Don DeVoe's best defensive-minded teams or Ray Mears' carnival act complete with unicycles, orange-and-white basketballs and the Ernie and Bernie Show's Sports Illustrated cover, Pearl was the greatest thing in UT's lukewarm basketball history. Going to six NCAA tournaments in six years at a school that's never reached the Final Four and only once made it to an Elite Eight will do that to a fan base.

And in that sense, the Big Orange Nation is no better or worse than any high-major fan base. Imagine if Alabama never had won a football national championship before Nick Saban arrived, then won the three in four years he accomplished. Then let's say he'd committed the most heinous crime imaginable but gotten off on a technicality. You think Bama backers wouldn't have signed an online petition to bring him back? The signatures might have run in the millions.

But university administrators should be held to a far higher standard of common sense and integrity. Hart should have issued a statement early in the petition process that however much UT appreciated Pearl's grand work before he was forced out for NCAA violations and lying about it, he never again would be the Vols coach.

He didn't have to say Martin would continue as coach going forward. Just that Pearl wouldn't.

And if you don't think those silent actions are hurting the process to replace Martin, you probably think Louisville's Rick Pitino - not his son, Minnesota's Richard Pitino - still could be had.

To revisit an ESPN NCAA tournament show when it appeared Martin might take the Marquette job, network analyst Dino Gaudio noted that the UT administrators' perceived lack of support for Martin could hurt them in the coaching community should they need to replace him.

This doesn't mean that White turned his back on UT as some payback for Martin, or for former football coach Derek Dooley, who also worked at La. Tech but never with White.

The reality is that were the Vols brass willing to part with $2.5 million or more a year for the new coach, any thin loyalty by other coaches for Martin would disappear quicker than Martin's April Fool's Day line about UT being the place he wanted to be.

Yet since Hart appears intent on bargain shopping - supposedly averse to any contract topping $2 million - his candidates apparently have embraced a cautious skepticism toward the job, despite UT arguably possessing the SEC's best venue other than Kentucky's Rupp Arena, a laid-back East Tennessee lifestyle that seems attractive to most candidates and a fan base that cares deeply for its Vols, or else the Pearl petition never would have attracted more than 36,000 signatures.

It's all gotten so depressing that a friend joked Monday that all this is just a ruse to hire Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - who's a close friend of Butch Jones - after the playoffs, though that would certainly make Hart a hero.

But the far more likely conclusion is Hart successfully wooing Tyndall, whose marketing skills are far closer to Pearl's than White's would be. And Tyndall's resume actually is superior to White's overall, the Golden Eagles coach having twice guided Morehead State to the NCAA tourney in his final four seasons at the Kentucky school. He's also matched White's 56 wins over the past two seasons, guiding Southern Miss to the NIT quarterfinals both years.

So maybe this is all going to work out OK. At least for now. But should the next coach, assuming it's Tyndall, fail to energize the fan base as much as the last coach, the Vols may have a different AD to make their next coaching hire.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.