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Tennessee: Learn From Our Misfortune–Now Is No Time To Panic

December 6, 2012

Oh, Tennessee…

Right now I'm sighing the knowing sigh of a fan who watched his own school travel down this same road you find yourselves stuck on. That road known as the Shame And Public Embarrassment Because Seemingly No One Wants To Be Your New Coach freeway.

In 2006, Herb Sendek–fed up with State fans demanding he take his team to the next level–bolted for a pay raise and sunny skies in Tempe, AZ at Arizona State. It was somewhat unexpected, at least publicly, and it left Athletic Director Lee Fowler in the unenviable position of hiring a coach for one of your two major sports with little time to prepare.

I certainly don't need to rehash that search entirely, but the highlights were every bit painful as what you're experiencing right now. There was the very public denial from Rick Barnes (where he netted a sweet pay raise) and the oh-so-close-but-not-quite hiring of John Calipari (complete with flight tracking of Wendell Murphy's plane, making for an embarrassing photo op at RDU), followed by a month's worth of other denials and information leaks, culminating in the hiring of Sidney Lowe.

There was much finger-pointing, laughing and mockery on the part of other fanbases and media members, much like there is today for Tennessee and its fans. And a lot of what's said is eerily similar to what was said of State's job.

Consider these parallels between NC State basketball in 2006 and Tennessee Football of today, as well as the searches themselves:

  • Winner of a national title in the distant-but-not-THAT-distant past
  • Rabid fanbase who remembers those days and expects to return to that level, quickly
  • Located in a conference known nationally for that sport (ACC basketball, SEC football) 
  • An attempt to hire to several BIG names from other programs at or above current success level — in Tennessee's case, Charlie Strong, Mike Gundy, Jon Gruden, etc.
  • A prolonged search that has gone on far longer than anticipated, given the resources and willingness to pay top-dollar.

I won't lie, there's temptation to point and laugh right along with everyone else at the hubris of Tennessee fans.

But I can't. The wounds of the 2006 search still feel fresh. They were deep cuts, probably because in reality, NC State's basketball job–in 2006–wasn't nearly as attractive as we all thought it was. It turns out everyone else was right, we were wrong, and we fell victim to the hubris of our athletic director who felt his basketball ties would net him a homerun hire. The hubris of we State fans, applying just as much heat to the process by making it clear that any hire short of Barnes or Cal would be soundly rejected, was every bit as painful to face and admit.

So humbled by the '06 search, I hope Tennessee heeds this advice learned the hard way: Now is no time to panic.

Yes, it sucks having every media member, blogger and person with a voice (hello Twitter…thank you for not existing in 2006) telling you how stupid you are. Each public flirtation and denial makes it THAT much harder to actually land a new coach, I know. Ending it all with a sympathetic, nostalgic hire looks so good right about now.

But the absolute LAST thing your AD needs to do in this situation is bring the search to a hasty conclusion simply to end the PR nightmare.

NC State and Lee Fowler did just that in 2006, hiring popular alum Sidney Lowe to return home from the NBA ranks to coach his alma mater to the glory he experienced in 1983, and it was the worst possible decision long-term.

I say "long-term," because in the short term, Fowler made a hire that worked out well for him. The din of angry fans and alums calling for his head was drastically (though not completely) quieted by offering up Lowe as the program's new leader. Folks took a cautiously optimistic stance on Lowe, given his ties to the pros. By adding 1974 point guard Monte Towe to the staff, as well, there was hope their playing backgrounds might lead to exciting basketball. And excitement was probably the LAST adjective you'd use to describe the Sendek era, so folks were hungry for it. 

Sure enough, in Lowe's first year, his NBA-style offense was difficult to defend and the Pack nearly won an ACC title using it. Fowler looked like a damn genius, smoking cigars on the deck of his lake house.

But the band aid hire fell off soon thereafter. Lowe's recruiting was strong, but his ability to manage the talent was not–nor was his commitment to running organized practices, or practices at all. The team fell apart quickly, and what began with so much promise quickly turned into a five-year-long nightmare.

Fowler was stuck. He couldn't very well fire the coach he'd hired–to do so would be admitting failure. Further, he'd hired a very popular alum for the job. To fire him would only further wound Lowe's legacy as a member of the Pack. In just a matter of a few short years, the short-term successful hire he'd made to appease the fanbase had become Fowler's albatross. Further, the Wolfpack basketball "brand" had become further damaged and degraded by years of ineptitude to a point lower than it had been prior to Lowe taking the job. 

So I say don't let the same thing happen to you, Tennessee. You're in a world of hurt right now, I know, but if your AD decides to jump from Option F to Option Z on his list (assuming he still has one) just to land a guy he knows won't turn down the job and will appease the fans, that's a BAD play. Particularly if he has ties to the Tennessee program already (i.e. "keeping it in the family"). More than likely, this Option Z-with-family-ties candidate will be grossly unqualified for the job; if he wasn't, he'd have been further up the list.

The fact Sidney Lowe had ZERO college coaching experience should've raised tons of red flags for State fans happy with (or at least appeased by) the hire. If Tennessee hires a guy with deficient credentials that fans will look past simply because of nostalgia, it's a recipe for disaster.

I implore you–and your AD–to do two things. 

  1. Take a big ol' swig at the jug of humility: We didn't in 2006, and we paid the price. Phil Fulmer, 1998 and Tee Martin were 15 years ago. The kids you'll be recruiting were still in diapers then. All they know of Tennessee football is sub-standard, middling SEC football. Which ain't bad…but it ain't great either. Humility, as an elixir, is more bitter and kicks worse than the worst moonshine brewed in the Tennessee hills but yet you HAVE to choke it down. You simply have to. The sooner you do, the sooner you can move on to…
  2. Regroup and reevaluate the coaching talent pool: Where Fowler royally goofed up was not clumsily trying to hire Barnes or Calipari; even while bumbling about doing it, those two coaches were worth exploring as options to find out their true interest in the job. Fowler had to get definitive "no"s from them. No, his true failure was skipping over several up-and-coming coaches who would've been great hires and were very much attainable. Sean Miller, who coached at NC State under Sendek and to this day still has family in the area, was just getting things going at Xavier in 2006. He'd already proven he could be a solid recruiter already as part of Sendek's staff. By all accounts from people I speak to with knowledge of the situation, Miller could've been had rather easily with a phone call and a reasonable offer (Granted: The way Miller operated during our 2010 search and Maryland's search, it's hard to know what is fact or fiction with Miller all the way back in 2006.). Fowler–under fire to fill the position–never even explored targeting rising stars in the coaching community like Miller. He wanted the search done, as painlessly as possible. Tennessee, despite how caustic the job looks at this particular moment in time, still has a ton going for it–great tradition, great and historic facilities, a great and rabid fanbase and tons of resources, i.e. SEC cash. There are several young candidates out there–several of them of the same ones NC State explored to fill its vacancy–that could win big with those aspects given time and commitment from the AD. But the AD has to be willing to hire someone from a lower level of FBS football–the WAC or the MAC–who is right on the verge of breaking through. It won't be a popular hire for most Tennessee fans, but it's the right play at this time.

I like to think that Debbie Yow learned her lesson from her own basketball coaching search in 2010. The Mark Gottfried hiring process had plenty of fits and sputters, forcing the ever-bombastic Yow to regroup after taking her own swig from the jug of humility. I think that search played a large part in why this football coaching search went far smoother. She immediately targeted up-and-comers at lower level programs and coordinators, rather than trying to pry away head coaches from programs at comparable levels to NC State. That gave her the opportunity to make a successful pitch to her #1 (non-James Franklin) target and wrap things up quickly.

I cannot fault you, Tennessee, for swinging for the fences initially. You should have. But with two strikes against you, now you have to guard the plate in a manner of speaking…you have to be patient. Don't be afraid to choke up on the bat if you have to. But don't let the home crowd eager for a home run hire end up goading you into wildly swinging at strike three. As we State fans know all too well, it can be a long (and expensive) five years sitting on the bench waiting for that next at bat.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Stuart Spencer permalink
    December 6, 2012 12:23 pm

    One key difference, they fired Dooley, Sendek surprised us by leaving, though he was on the hot seat. Dave Hart should’ve had a plan in place. Once again this underscores just how well Debbie Yow executed our search.

    I have no love for UT, but I feel bad for their fanbase like you. Except for those Youtube guys.

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