From bleak to peak

Tennessee basketball has experienced a lot of low points during the past 30 years but March 14, 2005 may have been the lowest.

Having just fired Buzz Peterson following a four-year tenure that produced a 61-59 record and zero NCAA Tournament bids, the Vols were looking to hire their fifth coach in 17 years. The program was in disarray, the fans were apathetic and the players were discouraged.

Despite an impressive resume' as an aide at Louisville and a superstar son on his roster, Wade Houston (1989-94) wasn't able to revive the program. Despite relentless work on the recruiting trail, Kevin O'Neill (1994-97) wasn't, either. Despite a boatload of talent inherited from O'Neill, Jerry Green (1997-2001) also fell short. So, when the young and charismatic Peterson (2001-2005) failed, Big Orange basketball seemed doomed to endure long-term mediocrity.

Then something unexpected happened ... Tennessee finally got it right. Athletics director Mike Hamilton turned the program over to Bruce Pearl, who had been a big winner at a small program (Wisconsin-Milwaukee). His energy and enthusiasm re-invigorated Tennessee's fan base and rekindled the competitive spirit of Tennessee's players.

After notching 61 victories and zero NCAA bids in four years under Peterson, Tennessee has posted 88 victories and four NCAA bids in its first four years under Pearl.

No player better exemplifies the dramatic shift in the program's fortunes than Dane Bradshaw. After starting just 13 games in his two seasons under Peterson, he started 65 in his two seasons under Pearl. After playing for two Peterson teams that won 29 games, he played for two Pearl teams that won 46 games. Bradshaw elevated his game so much his final two years in the program that he was voted a spot on Tennessee's 25-man All-Century team last winter.

The key, he says, was perseverance.

"It was just about handling adversity and staying ready for your opportunity," Bradshaw recalled recently. "We had plenty of talented guys who were in similar situations to mine that DIDN'T stay ready for their opportunity."

Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith also became better players under the new coaching regime. But no one on the Vol roster blossomed as dramatically as Bradshaw did.

"You've got to control what you can control, and I was fortunate enough to have Coach Pearl come along and change my life," Bradshaw said. "He didn't just change my basketball career; he changed my life."

And, just as importantly, Pearl changed the perception of Tennessee hoops. No longer seen as a mediocre program marked by inconsistent effort and uninspired play, the Vols came to be viewed as a rising program with superior effort and an entertaining style of play.

Bradshaw summed it up this way: "After the very first game we played under Coach Pearl people said, 'I don't care how many games you all win; if you just play like that and give us something flying up and down the court in Tennessee jerseys we'll be happy.'"

In fact, the Vols have given their fans much more than a good effort and a fast tempo the past four years. They've given them four NCAA Tournament bids, two SEC East titles, an SEC overall title and a brief stint as the No. 1 team in America.

As a result, a fan base that was abandoning ship in 2005 is now solidly behind Big Orange basketball. No one is happier about this than Bradshaw, who watched the transformation from within the program.

"It was a joy to play in front of Tennessee fans," he said. "And making the All-Century team is something that can never be taken away. I'm certainly honored to be there."

Especially when he thinks back on how bleak the outlook was on March 14, 2005.

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