Like your predecessors as University of Tennessee athletics director – Bob Woodruff, Doug Dickey and Mike Hamilton – you haven't sought my advice on hiring coaches. But I'm going to give it anyway. Having followed and/or covered Big Orange sports for roughly 50 years, I have experience on my side if nothing else.
First and foremost, understand that Tennessee basketball can be a very big deal. It flourished under Ray Mears in the 1960s and 1970s, then it flourished under Bruce Pearl earlier this century. Vol fans will show up in surprising numbers if they are given a compelling show.
Mears understood this and set out to make Big Orange basketball an experience, not just a game. That's why he stole the Harlem Globetrotters pre-game routine (including the tune Sweet Georgia Brown). That's why he had a player wheeling around on a unicycle before the game and local celebrities wrestling trained bears at halftime. Pearl boasted a similar knack for showmanship, as you surely recall from your days working in the athletics department at Alabama. Critics can scoff all they want but a little color puts butts in seats and money in the bank.
Obviously, winning puts butts in seats, too, but Jerry Green proved that it isn't always enough. So did Cuonzo Martin to a lesser extent. Basically, Tennessee needs a coach who connects with the fan base. Like Mears. Like Pearl. Heck, even Kevin O'Neill was enormously popular at Tennessee. The guy never won squat but he was an engaging personality who was always good for a sound bite or two or three.
This is not to suggest that the next Vol coach must possess Mears' promotional genius, Pearl's knack for theatrics or O'Neill's rapier wit. All I'm saying is that an outgoing personality helps, especially when the team is in rebuilding mode.
Secondly, Tennessee's coach needs to be a national recruiter. You've surely noticed by now that East Tennessee isn't the talent hotbed it once was and that Memphis might as well be located in Texas. Many of the finest players in Big Orange history had to be lured here from other states – Ernie Grunfeld, Bernard King and Tobias Harris (New York), Dale Ellis and Reggie Johnson (Georgia), Allan Houston, Isaiah Victor, Chris Lofton, Scotty Hopson, (Kentucky), Len Kosmalski (Ohio), Gene Tormohlen and Mike Edwards (Indiana), Dyron Nix (Florida), Tony White (North Carolina), Don Johnson (Illinois) and C.J. Watson (Nevada) to name just a few.
Fourth, shop smart but don't shop cheap. Most of the items on the clearance rack are there for a reason. Counting the salaries and the buyouts it paid Jerry Green and Buzz Peterson to stop coaching the team, Tennessee probably could've hired Rick Pitino in the 1990s. I know you aren't going to pay the basketball coach more than you pay the football coach but the difference between $1.5 million and $2 million per year could be the difference between regular visits to the NIT and regular visits to the NCAA.
Finally, don't feel compelled to hire a Southerner or a white guy. The two most popular coaches in program history were Mears (born in Ohio) and Pearl (born in Massachusetts). And, despite what you might have heard, the fan base isn't racist (except for a few lunatic-fringe types that mar every fan base).
This is the school that started the SEC's first African-American quarterback (Condredge Holloway) and hired the SEC's first African-American basketball coach (Wade Houston). And I'm sure you heard the biggest cheer at the recent alumni flag-football game. It was for Tony Robinson, an African-American who messed up his life big-time before redeeming himself.
That's all I've got, Dave. Good luck with the hire. Like the rest of Big Orange Country, I'll be watching.
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