I don’t do the bandwagon approach very well. In fact, I usually root against the team everybody else loves, just out of spite. As a result, I’ve always been a Tennessee basketball fan. Always. Through the good times and bad — and as y’all know, it’s been mostly bad in our lifetime.
I’ve been around people who are diehard Tennessee football fans, then turn around and root for some other team in basketball (one of the sport’s blue blood programs, of course). I never understood how that works. I’m not a Tennessee fan because I’m an alumnus; I went to Tennessee Tech. Geography, I guess, has a lot to do with it; growing up in East Tennessee, a love for the university’s sports programs was engrained in me at an early age…we even go watch the women’s soccer team play on Sunday afternoons! But I’m not a fan of Tennessee football because Tennessee football is a traditional winner…I’m a fan of Tennessee football because I’m a fan of the University of Tennessee.
Tennessee basketball has had its moments…achieving a No. 1 ranking in 2008 after beating Memphis, advancing to the Elite Eight (and coming up just one point short of the Final Four) in 2010…but there’s been a lot of low points, too.
The Wade Houston era…I remember distinctly a game in 1994, sitting in Thompson-Boling Arena with about 4,000 other people as South Carolina came to town and a group of about 50 Gamecock fans in the 300 level seats made more noise than the rest of the arena. South Carolina walked away with a win that day; not surprising, Tennessee won only 5 games all season and finally fired Houston.
I remember the surprising run to the SEC Tournament championship game in 1991, winning 3 games in a row (including an upset of No. 18 Mississippi State and a win over an unranked but very good Georgia team) to reach the title game before losing to Alabama. That team came up just one win shy of an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but had won just 9 games during the regular season…and how in the heck does a team with Allan Houston, Lang Wiseman and Carlus Groves win just 9 games, anyway? The next year the Vols added Corey Allen and won 19 games, but were knocked out of the SECT by LSU, a loss that probably cost them an NCAA Tournament bid. And that turned out to be the high point of the Houston era.
I remember the incredible 78-77 win over No. 2 Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena in February 1993. UK was up 3 in the closing seconds and chose to foul Allan Houston rather than take a chance on him hitting a 3 and forcing overtime. Houston hit the first, intentionally missed the second, and Corey Allen got the offensive rebound and was fouled on the put-back to tie the game. He hit the free throw for the most improbable of wins. And then I remember the 101-40 humiliation to Kentucky in the second round of the SECT just a few weeks later. Tennessee just gave up in that game, and it was the beginning of the end of the Houston era.
I remember the Kevin O’Pottymouth era. Tennessee fans loved O’Neill because he actually made it to the NIT in 1996. But he never had a winning season, and high school teams were more exciting to watch than his deliberate, slow-the-game-down approach. After an 11-win season in 1997, he said the only way he wouldn’t be back for a fourth season at Tennessee was if he was hit by a truck. And a couple of weeks later a truck named Northwestern hit him dead-on and he was packed and gone for the Big Ten.
Jerry Green came in to replace O’Neill and with him came success Tennessee basketball hadn’t seen since Don DeVoe. In four seasons, he never failed to win 20 games, making the NCAA Tournament all four seasons and achieving a Top 10 national ranking in three of those seasons. But his teams had a thug mentality that was hard to watch. Despite playing with Final Four-level talent (mostly thanks to the recruiting of O’Neill), Green’s teams seemed to lack heart and effort. Infamously, they lost to North Carolina — a big underdog — in the Sweet Sixteen round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, after a clear path had been paved to the Final Four. The next year, the Vols started 16-1 and were ranked No. 4 in the country before the wheels came off. At one point, UT was 5-8 in SEC play. Fans were incensed, and Green responded to the criticism by getting on the radio and inviting them to go spend their time “at the K-Mart” instead of watching Tennessee basketball. He was fired after the season, and no one shed any tears. Tennessee caught a lot of flack among the national sportswriters for firing a coach who had won as much as Green had won, but Green never coached again. No other school was willing to give him the reins of their program, which seemed to vindicate Tennessee’s move.
But if Tennessee did Jerry Green wrong, karma came in the form of Buzz Peterson. Michael Jordan’s former roommate and teammate won over Tennessee fans, but was the persona of nice-guys-finish-last. He was simply never able to turn a corner. His four-year record was 61-59, and he was fired after a 14-17 season in 2005.
I loved Buzz Peterson…I wanted him to succeed. But I also remember stalking out of Thompson-Boling Arena after one of the many half-hearted efforts in that four-year span and swearing I’d never go back as long as Buzz was coaching.
Then came the Bruce Pearl era, which speaks for itself. A charismatic head coach, a ton of success, lofty expectations, top-notch recruiting classes, unprecedented success . . . and all of it undone by a barbecue. Pearl had the misfortune of hosting an ineligible recruit at a cookout — a rule so minor that it has since been stricken from the books and isn’t even a rule. But he lied about it, and did so to an NCAA infractions committee that was looking for a pound of flesh. For that, he received a 3-year coaching ban and Tennessee was forced by the NCAA to fire him. Mike Hamilton infamously threw Pearl and his team under the bus the day before they departed for an NCAA Tournament game against Michigan, resulting in a lopsided loss that he hoped would help him win the battle of public opinion when it came to firing Pearl (it didn’t).
Cuonzo Martin had a nice run to the Sweet 16 in 2014 before bolting for Cal. Much like Jerry Green who came before him, there wasn’t much love lost between Martin and Tennessee. The national sportswriters claimed it was because Tennessee fans were racist and didn’t like Martin because he was black. Actually, Tennessee fans didn’t like Martin because he wasn’t Bruce Pearl.
Donnie Tyndall was the half-hearted effort to replace Martin and actually seemed to be a pretty good coach for a short guy, going .500 despite playing with a makeshift team that included very little real talent. Unfortunately, he also had a penchant for breaking the rules, and his cheating ways from his days prior to Tennessee caught up with him after just one season in Knoxville and he was given the equivalent of a lifetime coaching ban by the NCAA.
But fortune finally smiled on the Vols. As the NCAA was wrapping up its investigation into Tyndall and preparing for force Tennessee to fire its second coach in four years, Texas stupidly fired Rick Barnes because he couldn’t win enough. A plane from Tennessee was literally waiting at the airport to pick up Barnes as he finished his farewell press conference in Austin after being fired.
Many claimed it was a “safe hire” by Athletics Director Dave Hart; an effort to avoid hiring a guy who was going to disgrace the university like Tyndall did, but a guy who was probably past his prime and wasn’t going to win a lot of games, either. There were plenty who claimed that Barnes was just coming to Tennessee to retire. If Texas was turning him out to pasture, Knoxville was his pasture.
After spending a couple of years implementing his system, Barnes saw his team make a huge jump in 2018, winning 26 games. It was an over-achieving team by any measure.
Through it all, I’ve kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I waited for it last season, when UT suddenly began to win games it should’ve lost. I waited for it earlier this season, believing the Vols couldn’t possibly recapture what they had last season; believing they were over-ranked when they started the season.
At some point — I believe it was sitting in Thompson-Boling Arena as Tennessee systematically took Georgia apart with a 96-50 win on January 5 — I realized that it was time for Tennessee fans to stop holding our breath. This team is just that good.
Now, at 16-1, Tennessee has landed somewhere it’s been just once before: No. 1 in the country. As has been said a lot in the past couple of weeks, every other team in the Top 10 has at least two “Top 100” recruits. Some have 5 or 6. Tennessee has zero. The highest-ranked player on the Vols’ active roster is Yves Pons, who was ranked 127. But they’re No. 1 because they play with teamwork and chemistry that is seldom seen in college basketball or any sport at any level. And they have a pretty good coach, which helps.
Polls don’t much matter in January. This is a sport that is all about March. But as a lifelong Tennessee basketball fan who was there for Wade Houston’s 5-win final season, who used to tune in faithfully to the Jefferson Pilot games back in the ’90s, only to see the Vols lose, who hasn’t had much to cheer about, I’m going to enjoy it. This Tennessee team is good enough to get to the Final Four, good enough to win the national championship. Yet, statistics alone say that the Vols probably won’t make it to the Final Four. Final Four appearances are a rare thing in this sport. As the blue bloods who are in contention every year, like Duke and Carolina, can attest, sometimes you can have a phenomenal team and come up short. Sure, at this point it will be a disappointment if Tennessee doesn’t get to the Final Four. But that’s okay. Because no matter how this thing winds up from here, it’s been a successful season.
And much like those of us who cut our teeth on Tennessee football in the late ’80s and early ’90s didn’t realize how good they had it, the johnny-come-lately Tennessee basketball fans (yes, that includes the new-to-the-party bandwagon-jumpers) who weren’t there for the Wade Houston and Kevin O’Pottymouth years don’t realize — can’t realize — just how special this time is. If you love the sport of basketball and you love the Vols, relish the rest of this season. Relish the wins and let the losses sting a little, but mostly just enjoy being a fan of one of the greatest teams in the land, while it lasts. It’s a special time, and it won’t last forever.
I wish someone had told me that back when Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning were quarterbacking the Vols’ football team.