UT now a top hoops job

A few years ago, the national basketball community didn't look fondly on the men's job at Tennessee. They saw a cavernous arena, a program that had little tradition over the past 20 years and coaches leaving about every four years for a variety of reasons.

But Bruce Pearl has changed all that.

He has proven you can win at a high level at Tennessee. He has proven you can put 20,000 fans in the stands. And he has proven the Tennessee job isn't so bad after all.

Before Pearl came to Tennessee, many thought the job wasn't among the top five in the SEC. They put Kentucky, Florida, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas and even Georgia ahead of Tennessee.

Now, I'd put it third behind Kentucky and Florida.

But it's those past failures at Tennessee that has fans antsy about Pearl. They think he's going to leave for another job. They thought he might go to Iowa. They think he might go to Boston College – his alma mater – if that job opens up.

But there aren't that many jobs that are better than the UT job. Years ago, I ranked the UT job in the top 25 nationally and some thought that generous. Now, I'd rank it among the top dozen in the nation based on fan and administration support, facilities, recruiting and quality of life.

``I think because of the turnover we've had the last 16 years,'' Tennessee men's athletic director Mike Hamilton said, ``we've developed a little bit of an inferiority complex as it relates to our basketball job.

``I don't mean that to slight any fan by any stretch of the imagination. I just believe we've got a really great job and we've got a great coach who knows he has a great job. With the dollars we're able to allocate toward our basketball program and the way fans have responded to him, I don't think we as fans or staff members should take that for granted. We should give ourselves more credit as fans of the program.''

What Hamilton is saying is that the UT job is an elite job, and fans shouldn't be worried about Pearl bolting for some place like, oh, Northwestern.

``We grasp this success we've had in last 24 months, and we relish it and we want more of it,'' Hamilton said. ``So maybe it's a natural occurrence to think, `Gosh, what would happen if we didn't have this any longer.'

``I can assure you, all of my conversations with Bruce Pearl would indicate he's very happy here in Knoxville and appreciates so much the fan support and is looking forward to a team returning next year that we think will make a run deep into the NCAA tournament.''

On a national scale, you could argue that Kentucky, Florida, Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Louisville, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, UCLA, Arizona, Kansas, Texas and Memphis are better jobs.

You could argue UT is just as good of a job or better than any other program.

``I'm biased, but I think it's one of the top 10 jobs in the country,'' Hamilton said. ``I can't necessarily say it was three years ago. But I thought it had the potential three years ago. When you look at the ability to recruit to this area, the fan support, the great league that we're in, you can obviously win a national championship from here. We have so many things going for us. I think it's one of the best jobs out there.''

Former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson and ESPN analyst Fran Frascilla don't see it that way. They think the UT job ranks in the top half of the SEC, but they don't put it in the top three and they certainly don't put it in the top 10 nationally.

But Don DeVoe does. He coached at Tennessee from 1978-89. He won one SEC Tournament championship and one SEC regular-season title. He won his first four games against Kentucky and was 9-4 against the Wildcats before finishing 11-12. He is the second-winningest coach in UT history.

And he thinks the UT job is second only to Kentucky.

Why does he think it's better than the Florida job?

``When you get right down to it, tradition means everything,'' DeVoe said. ``Kentucky's tradition overwhelms everybody else, let alone the SEC. Tennessee is a better job than Florida because tradition plays a key role. High school basketball in Tennessee is far superior to basketball in the state of Florida and the support UT fans have provided through the years makes the job so much better.

``With Bruce Pearl's arrival, all they had to do was prove they could play hard and win home games and the arena filled again.''

DeVoe also thinks Knoxville's geographical location is suitable to recruiting kids from the Midwest, the East and the South. He pointed to UT signing kids from Ohio, Indiana, New York, Virginia and throughout the Southeast.

I asked DeVoe if Pearl has made UT a better job.

``I've always thought it was an outstanding job,'' DeVoe said. ``It was an outstanding job well before Ray Mears arrived (in 1962).''

DeVoe thinks the UT job ranks among the top five or 10 in the nation. While UT's coach, the only time he was tempted to leave was when the Ohio State job came open in 1985. DeVoe, who played for the Buckeyes, withdrew his name. The next day, Ohio State hired Gary Williams.

``I withdrew my name because I was excited about what we were doing at Tennessee,'' DeVoe said. ``The arena was being built. We had commitments from some outstanding players – Doug Roth was one of the top two centers in the nation, and Dyron Nix and Mark Griffin. I just felt like we had a lot going for us and it was a better opportunity.''

After the 1985 season, DeVoe, who missed the NCAA Tournament two consecutive years, got a five-year extension from athletic director Bob Woodruff.

Four years later, DeVoe was fired by a different athletic director, Doug Dickey.

Does DeVoe regret not taking that Ohio State job?

``You're talking about hindsight,'' DeVoe said. ``I wish now maybe I should have stayed in the picture longer, but my allegiance was to Tennessee.''

In 1976, Ohio State could have had DeVoe, but elected to hire Eldon Miller.

``I never understood why Ohio State wouldn't select me over Eldon Miller,'' DeVoe said.

If Kentucky had offered to hire DeVoe while he was a Tennessee, would he have accepted?

``I never coveted that job,'' DeVoe said. ``I never looked at it as being an almighty job. From my perspective, when I was at Ohio State, I felt we'd beat Kentucky and when I was at Tennessee, I felt we'd beat Kentucky.

``And we did.''

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