I can’t imagine a more fitting scene for the press conference the University of Tennessee held at Pratt Pavilion on campus yesterday. In an attempt to introduce his new trophy hire, Dave Hart was less than a few words into his first sentence when the microphone began to cut out. It never came back.
Similar to the press conference, the message from the UT administration to the media, to its fans, boosters, and maybe to itself for nearly 10 years has been unclear, to say the least. In 2005, the rumblings began about Phil Fulmer: The angry mob said he was too old and the game had passed him by. Meanwhile, Bruce Pearl successfully lit a fire under the basketball program that same year, lending validation to the theory that UT was in desperate need of new blood in the athletics department.
In 2008 Fulmer was (rightfully) let go by then-AD Mike Hamilton, and when Tennessee hired Lane & Monte Kiffin, the program seemed primed to return its athletics department to the peak of the mountain. Instead, though, the free fall began.
Bruce Pearl and Lane Kiffin were the first of what I consider “home-run swing” hires: ones initially considered massive successes by the fanbase. Full of youthful energy, recruiting prowess, and success in their respective arenas, the two of them exemplified the qualities Vol Nation had so desperately wanted in a coach. Like all houses built on sand, however, Tennessee’s athletic foundation crumbled and both men left the school in excruciating fashion for the fans who so adored them.
In both instances, Hamilton was faced with the same choice: He could return to the blueprint that had successfully built college programs for decades, or swing as hard as he could at unknown targets and hope he connected for the home run.
Hamilton first hit a dribbling single with the hire of Derek Dooley – a novice coach with a familiar name – when more proven coaches had expressed interest in the job. Looking back, it’s easy to see where things went wrong. Folks around the program had become convinced that a younger coach with energy similar to Bruce and Lane was absolutely necessary to rebuild a program quickly. Dooley flamed out in spectacular fashion and (thankfully) led to the hiring of Butch Jones, a coach who embodies both consistency and charisma.
Where the Dooley decision exemplified Hamilton’s reckless confidence, Cuonzo Martin’s hiring was a direct reflection of the loss of confidence Hamilton had late in his tenure at Tennessee. Coach Martin was the opposite of Pearl, and unfortunately the opposite of what Tennessee needed at the time.
When Dave Hart hired Donnie Tyndall just a year ago, he was trying to bring some personality back to sideline, at the fans’ request. Unfortunately a strong court presence and the adoration of the fanbase couldn’t hide a troubled past with NCAA, who is no stranger in Knoxville. The culmination of years of poor choices finally leads us back that sketchy microphone and Rick Barnes.
Rick Barnes is the least sexy Tennessee hire in recent memory, but he is by the far the smartest. Schools like Vanderbilt need to take home-run hires, like James Franklin, or Auburn with Pearl. Tennessee, on the other hand, has elite facilities, a rich tradition and time on its side.
Had Tennessee allowed Fulmer to stay, it may not have won a conference title, but it probably would have won 8 or 9 games and maintained a consistent bowl streak which would have rendered a healthier program in 2015. Rick Barnes may not deliver a championship to Knoxville. Hell, he probably won’t even deliver a Final Four.
But if he stabilizes and creates a foundation for the program, putting it into the position to hire a Shaka Smart type of coach five years down the road, he’s worth it. Tennessee finally made the right decision, which is good because I’m guessing now it’ll need to bring the $50,000 search committee back to Knoxville to replace a few sound engineers. Let’s hope the streak of positive decisions is here for the long haul.