In the Nick of Time
UT men’s basketball gets a much-needed renewal
by Tony Basilio
Don’t look now but Tennessee fans are starting to use the “B” word with regularity in Rocky Top. The recently completed ’05 Tennessee football season has some Vol faithfuls invoking the “B” word as in Battle. A losing season has the masses evoking the early 70’s disaster known in Rocky Top as the Bill Battle era. However, the real “B” word being bandied about is Basketball as in men’s hoops, as in perhaps the biggest “B” on campus, Bruce Pearl. It’s Déjà vu all over again in Big Orange Country.
By the mid-70’s UT basketball ruled East Tennessee. Ray Mears’ circus-like atmosphere coupled with a terrific basketball team left UT’s football counterpart to play sloppy seconds on campus. Being a foreigner—one who hails from North of the Mason-Dixon Line—it’s always been tough to conceive of UT hoops trumping Vol Football. Sure, I heard the stories, but that had to be revisionist history. Surely the basketball team didn’t surpass or even enjoy parity with its football counterpart, I’ve always reasoned. Long-time locals have always told me, “If they ever get the right basketball coach at that men’s program you will see what a great basketball town this is.”
Talk about the right hire at the right time. Mike Hamilton and UT’s brass had no choice. They had to hit a home run with the latest men’s basketball hire. Failure to do so would’ve relegated UT men’s hoops to a future of club sport status. I said in this space last week that I’m not quite ready to shine up the Bruce Pearl bandwagon just yet. Apparently I’m close to alone in this sentiment.
Perhaps it’s the need and want to associate with something new. Maybe it’s the novelty of emotion on the sideline that is capturing the fancy of this town. It could be the fact that if it looks like a Mears, acts like a Mears and talks like a Mears, then it has to be a Mears. Whatever it is, Bruce Pearl has tapped into a Big Orange vein of support.
On Friday night, Nov. 25, Pearl’s Vols improved to 3-0 on the season in front of over 12,000 actual fans in the arena. That’s pretty amazing attendance considering that the night featured a walk-up crowd of over 2,000 people who went out of their way on a holiday weekend when the football team was out of town. Not only was the football team away, but the students were gone for the Thanksgiving holiday. Consider the walk up of 2,000 in this light: Buzz Peterson’s final two years in Knoxville featured nights with crowds of 4,500 during Non-league play. Twelve thousand people braved sub-freezing temperatures to some see the Vols face somebody called Eastern Kentucky. That’s roughly 3,000 less than witnessed UT’s encounter with the University of Kentucky back in January.
With UT football coming off its first losing season since ’88 and its most disappointing gridiron campaign ever, Pearl couldn’t have picked a better time to burst on the scene. With two years out of the past five resulting in our beloved Vols failing to land in the final top 25, UT football is heading in the wrong direction. Fan perception is that Phillip Fulmer’s Vols are wrought with staff complacency. At least four coaching changes heading into next season may remedy this—or, maybe not. Time will tell. While Fulmer teeters and his era with or without David Cutcliffe seems passé, Pearl seems very chic. Could UT hoops suddenly become the place to be, or is this a reaction to a dry spell in football where a Citrus Bowl appearance is the high point this decade?
Pearl’s disciplined approach to the game by forcing a shorthanded Vol squad of only nine scholarship players to play a feverish pressing style over 40 minutes is resonating with a work-oriented, no-nonsense fan base. The past couple of games featured a crowd that entered Thompson-Boling Arena with a sense of anticipation, not for winning, but something more intrinsic: pure hustle and effort. With a promotional mind reminiscent of the aforementioned Mears, Pearl seems equipped with the perfect approach for resurrecting UT hoops. This was evident after the season opener versus ETSU. At the game’s conclusion, Pearl and his players quickly made their way from the arena floor to the concourse through a service elevator to greet and thank UT fans for coming to his inaugural game. Several listeners told me that Pearl told them, “Thanks for coming and understand that you didn’t see our best tonight. We will get better. We need you here night in and night out to make this happen!”
Some UT fans are so smitten with Pearl they’ve taken to grandiose visions of a 20-win season in ’05-’06. Before you dismiss this possibility, consider the No. 3 ranking of the UT football team heading into ’05. Stranger things have happened. As a working member of the media, I’m just glad that UT basketball finally has a pulse. It sure beats the naughty “B” word. That’s “B” as in Buzz!
Listen up! Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.