Buzz reflects on UT

You can tell when you talk to Buzz Peterson that he still wishes he's gotten that fifth year as Tennessee's basketball coach.

You can tell he regrets not winning more, not getting to the NCAA Tournament, not having a chance to coach signee Tyler Smith or perhaps Jamont Gordon.

You can tell the sting from his firing hasn't completely healed.

``I wanted to very badly (to get a fifth year at UT),'' Peterson said. ``But there are a lot of things you want you just don't get. It was harder at first.''

It would have been even harder had Peterson's Coastal Carolina team faced Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. It was oh-so-close to happening. The Chantacliers lost to Winthrop by a point in the Big South Tournament championship game. So it was Winthrop, not Coastal, that played the Vols in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

``It would have been awkward and I'm glad it didn't happen,'' Peterson said. ``I wish we'd gotten into the NCAA Tournament, but I'm glad it didn't happen. That's just something I didn't want to go through, to bring it back up again.''

Peterson was convinced he would return for a fifth season at UT. He was convinced because after Tennessee beat Arkansas in the first round of the SEC tournament, athletic director and friend Mike Hamilton gave Buzz a high five. That was a sign, Peterson felt. In the end, Peterson felt he was misled by Hamilton.

In truth, the decision had been made days before. Anything short of winning the SEC Tournament and Peterson would be fired. That decision was made after Peterson laid out a poorly sketched plan to Hamilton and UT president Dr. John Petersen on the Monday before the SEC Tournament.

As some have suggested, it wasn't a plan, but an admission of guilt, an admission that Buzz hadn't done the things necessary to win at a program like Tennessee.

What split the UT fan base was that Peterson is such a great guy and a class act. Maybe he was too nice to win at UT's level. It's interesting how so many Vol fans wanted to keep Peterson, who was two games over .500 in four years, and wanted to fire Jerry Green, who won 89 games in four years and made the NCAA tourney each season.

Peterson still looks fondly on his days as Tennessee's coach.

``Things just didn't go well for us at Tennessee in those four years and I'm thankful for those four years,'' Peterson said. ``I learned a lot, but you move on and do the best with what you've got right now.''

The most significant lesson Peterson learned?

``You've got to surround yourself with a tremendous staff, people that are loyal and will work hard,'' Peterson said. ``It's important to have people around you like that at the SEC level.''

Peterson didn't name names, but the only assistant to follow him to Coastal was Ed Conroy. Chris Ferguson, Chuck Benson, Clarence Swearingen and Al Daniels went elsewhere.

Peterson had been advised before his fourth season at UT to make staff changes. He didn't. He confided that he was going to shake up his staff after last season, and he called Eddie Fogler and Don DeVoe to ask if they had an interest in joining him at UT. But Peterson was fired before he could make any changes.

Peterson said he watched a number of UT games and pulled for his former team. He didn't sound jealous of the success enjoyed by his replacement, Bruce Pearl, who was named AP SEC Coach of the Year after guiding the Vols to the SEC East Division title.

``Sometimes you put a different face in front of people, it gives them new life and more confidence,'' Peterson said. ``Bruce Pearl did an excellent job with the ballclub to take it as far as he did.''

Peterson said he has yet to talk to Pearl. He also hasn't spoken to Hamilton since the firing.

``Within time, I will,'' Peterson said. ``There's no hard feelings here at all. When it's the right time for me, I'll call him.''

Peterson said he hasn't talked to his former players because he felt that would be ``awkward,'' just as he wouldn't want his predecessor talking to his players at Coastal.

Peterson led Coastal to a 20-win season by winning 14 of 16 games down the stretch. It was the program's first winning season since 1994. Peterson had hoped for an NIT bid, but his team won four games against non-Division I opponents, ruining their chances of a berth.

Still, Peterson said it was rewarding to send the seniors out on a positive note, even on a team with nine freshmen.

``I'll never forget, we won to get to .500 and in the locker room, one of our guys said, `Boy it's nice to be .500,''' Peterson said. ``I said, `We'll be a lot better than that if you keep believing and be resilient.'

``We hung in there, started winning some games and it was really a refreshing year for all of us.''

It was refreshing for Peterson to be back in coaching. He took a $1.39 million lump sum buyout from Tennessee. Fogler advised Peterson to get out of Knoxville, that remaining in the community would be uncomfortable.

``I look back now – I'm glad I took the job,'' Peterson said. ``It keeps you in coaching. And it was a lot of fun.''

Peterson's desire when he became a head coach was to work at a major school in a big-time conference. He had that at Tennessee. Despite what happened in Knoxville, the goal remains.

``I feel very blessed,'' Peterson said. ``I like where I am right now. This is a place where I can stay. But you want to have a chance to do like George Mason and coach in a Final Four. I still have aspirations of that.

``It's hard to get there, but I always say, I would like to have the opportunity to coach in one of those top 10 conferences again one day.''

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