UT's Unsung Hardwood Hero

This time last year the Buzz Train was pulling out of the station, and high-profile supporters of UT's beleaguered head basketball coach were jumping on board in what was becoming a virtual lovefest designed to save Peterson's job.

The public endorsements were in form of appeals to UT AD Mike Hamilton to give the personable North Carolina native another shot at getting the program turned around. Speculation had Peterson staying with a victory in the SEC Tournament. That occurred as the Vols knocked off Arkansas. However, in the second round Tennessee regressed and was thrashed by Kentucky effectively ending the season.

Big Orange Country (a term originated by the great Ray Mears) was a nation divided. On one hand were those that believed another coaching change would set the program back and further tarnish its image. Besides Buzz had reinforcements on the way in the form of a solid recruiting class that featured small forward Tyler Smith.

On the other hand were those that believed retaining Peterson was just delaying the inevitable. He had plenty of talent left by the deposed Jerry Green when he took over and still wasn't able to win consistently. Why would he be able to achieve more with young talent than he was with proven veterans?

Hamilton was in a tough position that was made more untenable by four prior botched hirings of head basketball coaches at UT, beginning with Wade Houston in 1989. Doing nothing would have been the safe path for Hamilton given the heavy hitters, i.e. Pat Summitt, Phil Fulmer and Peyton Manning, Peterson had in his court, coupled with the AD's own rookie status and capricious rise to authority.

To Hamilton's credit he didn't flinch when it came time to pull the trigger. He fired Peterson and took on the responsibility of finding the next head coach without the cover of a blue ribbon committee. He hired a consulting firm to collect info on coaches that might be available, and he relied on sources for informed opinion, most particularly former Vol great and NBA executive Ernie Grunfeld.

Hamilton also withstood the backlash of public opinion that cited Tennessee for its serial switches that resulted in six head coaching changes over 17 years. (Seven if you count the announcement Kevin Stallings had been hired He also took the criticism from many quarters, including North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, who essentially said UT didn't deserve a good basketball program. Of course, Williams is also the man that recommended the Vols hire Green and Peterson.

Not to be outdone, Green got in on the act by resurfacing from a lavish retirement — financed by UT dollars — to criticize the Vols for firing the man they hired to replace him. Even Peterson, who was two games over .500 and zero for the post season, was puzzled by the Big Orange buyout, insisting the tournament win over Arkansas was enough to save his job.

Point is: the negatives outweighed the positives for Tennessee particularly in terms of public perception. Such appearances also significantly impacted the field of available candidates further compounding Hamilton's objectives. Still he soldiered on in a very low key and systematic manner. He asked for no quarter and received none.

Few Tennessee fans had ever heard of Bruce Pearl until he emerged as one of the early favorites. Most of his success was a Division II head coach and Wisconsin-Milwaukee was hardly a hardwood giant. Mike Anderson of UAB, Bobby Lutz of NC-Charlotte, Dana Altman of Creighton and Skip Prosser of Wake Forest were all more established Division I coaches, competing in tougher conferences. Hamilton also resisted the sure short-term boost that bringing in the legendary Bobby Knight would have provided.

Hamilton knew Tennessee needed a promoter as much as it needed a basketball coach. Even an eternal optimist could see Thompson-Boling Arena was half empty and support was waning with each passing loss. The Vols' style of play was uninspiring and the crowd's lack of excitement underscored that fact.

When Wisconsin-Milwaukee got on a run in the NCAA Tournament, including a win over Alabama en route to the round of 16, Pearl was suddenly a popular choice. His team played a take-no-prisoners pressing defense and a high octane, uptempo offense. Pearl prowled the sidelines and passionately pushed his club through its paces. He even reminded some longtime UT fans of Mears himself.

The Panthers' success and swarming style sold UT's fan base on Pearl. That eliminated one obstacle confronting Hamilton, but it created another. Now Pearl was a hot property with leverage. He could entertain other offers or stay at UWM and bide his time. Another solid season would punch his ticket to a high profile program and the Panthers were loaded for a return trip to the NCAA.

Now Hamilton had to sell Pearl on his chances for success at a program that had been disparaged by the press and criticized by other coaches. He had to convince Pearl that Pat Summitt's shadow was a hindrance to the men's program. He had to assure Pearl his future was bright in orange despite what it had done for the coaching careers of Houston, Green and Peterson.

Hamilton did just that by establishing a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. And when Pearl exceeded all expectations in his first year on the job, Hamilton moved quickly to lock him up to a long-term contract. All in all not bad for Hamitlon's first hire.

Pearl's powerful personality and passion for the game have taken the Vol Nation by storm, and Tennessee fans are understandably enchanted and appreciative Bruce Almighty is in charge of the Vols' basketball fortunes.

But they shouldn't forget to offer thanks for the little, spectacled guy with the real big shoulders.


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