I should start with process of elimination.
It’s not Tennessee football. We know that because it doesn’t move the needle in the same way. We see it in our site numbers, in the stands, we hear it on the radio (we were getting calls about people who might sign with Tennessee football in 2016 in the midst of a basketball apocalypse) and we know that an AD that botched a very significant hire in this sport will be allowed to make another.
But we also know it isn’t irrelevant. Because while the numbers will always slide in football’s favor, the masses won’t sit quietly when things go up in flames.
And that’s exactly where the program found itself yesterday in the midst of yet another coaching change – the third in three seasons. This one spurred by the alleged actions of Donnie Tyndall during his time at Southern Miss. Should Dave Hart have known what Tyndall did at Southern Miss? Probably not. I’m not sure any amount of vetting would’ve dug up what appears to be information that just a select few knew.
He knew he was playing with fire, however, after trusting in a coach that already was involved in a major NCAA infraction at Morehead State, his alma mater. Hart confirmed on Friday that the Vols would be pursuing a coach with a clean NCAA past this time around. He is one year too late on that.
This column isn’t really about what happened though. It’s about what happens next. Because Tennessee is about to enter a real danger zone on the hoops side. Despite his key flaw, Tyndall also X-and-O’d his way around several opponents last year. He got 16 wins out of what might’ve been a 12-win type of team. And the cerebral, do-it-all senior Josh Richardson won’t be walking through the door again either. His selflessness, work ethic and leadership didn’t put the Vols in the penthouse, but it certainly kept them out of the SEC’s basement.
Next year’s roster, plus some of the standard attrition that comes with coaching change, plus the wrong coaching hire in this situation equals disaster – bring-out-the-curtains-again level of disaster.
Is Tennessee content with risking that? I think the answer to that circles back to the question asked at the beginning. What is Tennessee basketball?
If it’s something that the program does to try to make a little bit of money and keep fans somewhat engaged in the football offseason, then I’d say go find an up-and-comer. Pay him $1.3-1.7 million or so and hope lightning strikes again. Hope he’s Pearl 2.0. Hope he’s all the good that Tyndall was without the negative. Maybe in a few years he’ll have Tennessee back in the Big Dance and contending.
But I’d argue that Tennessee hoops can, and should be, more than that.
The inside of Thompson-Boling Arena is an absolute palace compared to so many other SEC foes. The practice facility is first class. When things are rolling, TBA can be as loud as anywhere in the country. Almost any metric you can think of points to Tennessee being capable of being a consistent Sweet 16-type of program, but poor leadership has sent UT milling around NIT level, if not worse, for several extended periods of its existence.
So I think, to some extent, we’ll find out something about how the administration feels about basketball with this hire. If basketball is essential at UT, it’s time to go out and get a proven winner. Somebody who has been to the NCAA tournament on a regular basis, is coveted in the coaching community and has everything Tennessee needs – an acumen for strategy, recruiting and the ability to connect with the fanbase. Not to mention the ability to keep himself out of NCAA trouble.
It’ll likely be expensive. And it could be a tough sell. While I mentioned the pros of Tennessee basketball at length, the returning roster and the instability of the program, as well as the continuous domination of border rival Kentucky, are all choppy seas the newcomer will have to overcome.
“Yes,” Hart responded when asked if UT was ready to be competitive financially in this search. “I am and we are as an institution. But I will say this, I don’t know what that ceiling might ultimately be. But we are willing to get into that marketplace? Yes. That is a very fair question.”
And another fair question is how important this program is. We should know more about that within a few weeks.