A Season On The Brink

It's hard to find any Tennessee fan that doesn't like Buzz Peterson the person, unfortunately it's just as difficult to find many Vol fans that have confidence in Buzz Peterson the basketball coach.

Therein lies the rub for Mike Hamilton who, in the first major decision of his tenure as Tennessee's athletic director, must decide Peterson's fate sometime after the Vols season limps to the finish line. Barring a rally on the order of Lazarus the end of Peterson's fourth season on the Hill will once again fall short of an NCAA bid and he will quite probably suffer his second losing campaign at Tennessee. That's follows four consecutive NCAA appearances under Jerry Green, who was fired.

Having the faith of your fans isn't a prerequisite for winning. Even the most successful head coaches are routinely second guessed by some fans — win, lose or draw. However having the support of your fan base is essential, especially if you are responsible for the financial bottom line.

Yet it may be just as important to protect against any further erosion of attendance or enthusiasm in spacious Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols will sell enough season tickets to remain viable but the empty seat syndrome impacts the perception of the basketball public, particularly basketball recruits and fans who can smell failure like a buzzard sniffing out a rotting carcass.

Bringing in a new head coach also has consequences for a program that has made such a transition an average of once every four years since 1989. The most obvious drawback comes when hiring a candidate with high qualifications and credentials since hiring a coach without that proven background of success is too risky for a program that needs to get on the fast track in a hurry.

There's also the matter of the $1.2 million dollars UT still owes Peterson to say nothing of the reported $210,000 owed to Green, which would be added onto whatever it might take to attract an established head coach to a school that has been something of a wasteland for men's basketball coaches the last two decades.

The criteria coming into this season as set down by Hamilton was making progress as in qualifying for the Big Dance. Now it looks like the Vols won't make it back to the NIT. There has been some progress off the court in terms of academics and that's commendable in light of the fact players are student/athletes, but it's also something that's expected. And it won't put any more fans in stands if it's not accompanied by significant progress on the court.

While it would be difficult to terminate a guy who's as nice or community conscious as Peterson, the tougher decision for Hamilton would be to keep Peterson since such a choice would run contrary to current public sentiment. It would take courage to stick with a coach who has lost the confidence of his fan base, but would it be wise?

Wade Houston was granted a fifth year at Tennessee and suffered his worst season (5-19) in Knoxville without son Allen Houston starring in the lineup. It's purely a guess as to how well the Vols might do next year with Tyler Smith joining the team. However Peterson had more talent in his first and second seasons at UT than he'll have next season.

The best argument for not bringing Peterson back is the fact the problems Tennessee had his first season have persisted throughout his four years at the helm. Remember how the Vols lost so many close games that first year and many figured the team was just snake bit? Well the late fades and close loses have continued to pile up and it appears to have little to do with bad luck. Instead, it's a case of a team not knowing how to win — period. Sometimes it blows big leads and loses late. Sometimes it rallies to close the gap and loses late. Sometimes it falls behind early and never comes close to catching up.

Sure there are those games in which Tennessee looks like a formidable team, but it can't maintain momentum or build on a victories. How many win streaks do you recall over the last four years? Consistency is not in UT's vocabulary when it comes to men's basketball. That is unless you count a consistent lack of defense, a consistent lack of sound fundamentals and a half-court offense that doesn't have glue or a clue. The Vols have consistently played soft especially in the rugged SEC.

Peterson, himself, has bemoaned the lack of leadership, but that's a quality a player should exhibit long before he arrives at college. In other words, if you don't have it in high school you're never likely to become a natural leader at the next level.

There has also been a disturbing lack of individual progress by players under Peterson. Brandon Crump, who was appointed captain last season, isn't playing as well as he did as a sophomore. Dane Bradshaw isn't any better in year two than he was in year one. Jemere Hendrix is arguably worse as is Stanley Asumnu. One of the least appreciated parts of recruiting is assembling players that mesh physically, emotionally and psychologically. That's something Peterson hasn't shown a knack for doing to this point.

The best thing for Tennessee would be for Peterson to get things turned around with what's left of this season, qualify for the NIT and put together a good post season run. Short of that Hamilton is going to be faced with a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't decision.

Changing coaches doesn't come with any guarantees as Tennessee fans can certainly attest. Sometimes a school can give up on a coach just when he's ready to turn it all around. However, there are also times when circumstances leave you without a viable option.

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