When Donnie Tyndall was introduced as Tennessee’s 19th head basketball coach on Tuesday, April 22nd, he referred to the Tennessee job as a “destination job,” one he viewed among the elite in the basketball world.
How accurate is Tyndall’s statement given the history of Tennessee basketball? Is it fair to compare the Vols to such schools as Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina? Those teams, unlike the Vols, have a storied history full of National Championships and multiple Final Four appearances.
In the 106 years the University of Tennessee has outfitted a basketball team, the Vols have never once appeared in a Final Four, let alone competed for a National Championship. Other SEC schools and a handful of mid-majors have competed and won National Championships, but the Vols have never taken that next step.
This article delves into the Vols’ basketball history and will attempt to discover whether or not Tennessee is truly a “destination job.”
1939 saw the very first NCAA Tournament. It was a field of eight teams that pitted Oregon and Ohio State in the final to determine the very first NCAA Tournament Champion. Oregon prevailed, 46-33.
In the following 74 years, 33 different teams have won the Tournament, the most coming from UCLA who has won 11, counting 8 consecutive from 1967-73. SEC rival Kentucky is second with 8 all-time titles.
The Vols have never even made it to a Final Four. But all of that in due time. First, let’s pick up with the Vols at that same juncture in time.
Since the Tournament began, the Vols have had 13 different head coaches (counting the recently hired Tyndall). John Mauer took over the job starting the 1938-39 season, the inaugural campaign for the NCAA Tournament. Once the head coach for Kentucky, Mauer coached the Vols from 1938-1947 (excluding the 1943-44 season due to WWII), and compiled a 127-41 record in his 8 seasons as head coach, winning two SEC Tournament Championships in the process. Mauer’s 127 wins ranks him 5th all-time for UT head coaches.
After Mauer came Emmett Lowery for 12 seasons as coach of the Big Orange. Lowery coached 279 games for the Vols, going 169-110 in his stint as head coach. Lowery’s whole coaching career was spent with the Vols, and he led them to some notoriety, propelling them to as high as the No. 5 team in the country in the 1958-59 season and led them to their first 20-win season in school history in the 1948-49 season. However, his Tennessee squads never finished higher than 3rd in the SEC during his tenure. His 169 wins rank him 3rd all-time for Tennessee head coaches.
After Lowery’s time ended, John Sines took over and plodded along to a 26-45 record in 3 seasons, falling to 4-19 in his final season. Sines never had a winning record as head coach of the Vols, going 9-29 in SEC play.
The Vols had success early in the NCAA Tournament era, but never appeared in the Big Dance. That would all change with one man and his bright orange blazer.
The Rise of Rocky Top
The 1962-63 season welcomed Ray Mears as the newest head coach in Tennessee basketball, and it would be the brightest era of UT basketball for many years to come. Mears took Sines’ 4-19 team and pushed them to 13-11, then only got better.
Mears led the Vols to an SEC Championship in 1967 and their first NCAA Tournament berth. They would make the Tournament again in 1975-76 and 1976-77, but failed to win a game in any of their 3 appearances under Mears. Ray Mears brought unprecedented success and attention to the Vols, as his marketing and blazing orange jacket on the sidelines attracted media and fans alike. He is also responsible for recruiting Vol legends Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld. Mears’ 278 wins are the most in school history.
Unfortunately, Mears’ health deteriorated, and after Cliff Wetting acted as head coach in 1977-78, Don DeVoe took over the program. DeVoe previously coached at Virginia Tech and Wyoming, making the NCAA Tournament only once before.
From 1978-89, DeVoe took Mears’ work and furthered upon it. In his first season, the Vols won the SEC Tournament (and have yet to win one since), and appeared in the NCAA Tournament in his first 5 seasons, making 6 appearances overall. He led the Vols to their first NCAA Tournament victory in his first season, and had a 5-6 record in the Tournament. DeVoe finished his career with a 204-137 record as Tennessee’s head man in 11 seasons.
The 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s saw the Tennessee basketball team gain national recognition, securing berths in the NCAA Tournament 9 times in a 22 year span. From 1962-89, the Vols saw their two winningest coaches head their basketball program, as Ray Mears and Don DeVoe led the Vols into previously unknown waters. The 1985 season also saw the NCAA Tournament expand to the 64 team field most fans know today, opening up new opportunities for the Vols and other teams alike. The next decade and a half would be quite the mixed bag for Tennessee, however.
Beginning in the 1989-90 season, Wade Houston took over as head coach of the Vols. Despite bringing in his son, Allen Houston, who set the career scoring mark for the Vols, Houston’s 5 seasons were underwhelming and sometimes downright dismal. Houston and the Vols started 16-14, but fell to 12-22 the following season. A 19-15 season looked to have the ship righted, but then they floundered again to 13-17 and to an abysmal 5-22 in the 1993-94 season, nearly undoing all the success and momentum built up by Mears and DeVoe. Houston was promptly fired after his fifth season, going 65-90 in his 5 seasons.
Kevin O’Neill took Marquette to the NCAA Tournament in the 1993-94 season and was hired to rebuild the Vols in 1994. His three seasons as head coach, however, saw stagnation rather than rebuilding. O’Neill went 11-16, 14-15, and 11-16 in three seasons as Tennessee’s head coach, failing to obtain a winning record in the SEC in any season. O’Neill was cut and went to Northwestern after the 1996-97 season, leaving a 36-47 record behind.
After O’Neill’s failed rebuild, the Vols turned to Oregon’s Jerry Green to take the Vols out of the dumps. He did just that, taking UT to the NCAA Tournament every season in his 4 year career as Tennessee head coach. Green’s Tennessee teams never won less than 20 games, peaking at 26 in his third season, and he led the Vols to their first Sweet Sixteen in 2000. Green earned a 3-4 record in the NCAA Tournament as Vols’ head coach, and they won the SEC East regular season title in 1999 and 2000.
Unfortunately for Green and the Vols, Green could never connect with the fanbase, and his antics and sour attitude caused him to be fired after the 2000-2001 season. Green went 89-36 in his 4 seasons as UT head coach.
Once Green was fired, Buzz Peterson was brought in from Appalachian State and one season at Tulsa. Peterson took Appy State to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and led Tulsa to 26 wins in 2001. Surely he would be able to carry Green’s momentum and keep the Vols prominent, right?
The answer to that question couldn’t be further from “yes.” Peterson’s Vols floundered in obscurity in his 4 seasons as head coach, only earning a winning record in two seasons. Peterson failed to get the Vols to the NCAA Tournament, and despite some talented teams, he never won more than 17 games in his four seasons. Peterson was fired following the 2004-05 season, leaving Tennessee with a 61-59 record.
The 90’s and the beginning of the turn of the century saw the Vols fall to obscurity. A brief bright spot for four seasons under Jerry Green were marred by Green’s bad relationship with fans, and Buzz Peterson quickly undid all the on-the-court success Green established. The next era in Tennessee basketball, however, would be one to remember, for various reasons.
The Pearl and Modern Era
After Petterson’s firing, Tennessee once again turned to an up-and-coming coach out of the mid-major ranks. This time, they hired Bruce Pearl from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he had led UW to two NCAA Tournament berths and 26 wins in 2004-05.
From the outset, fans were sold on Pearl and his Ray Mears-like showmanship. Pearl brought back the bright orange blazer for marquee games and rivalry games, and he took a 14-17 Peterson team to 22-8 and a NCAA Tournament appearance, earning a NCAA Tournament win that season. Pearl’s tenure saw the Vols rise to heights previously unimaginable for UT, as he helped the Vols earn their very first No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll in the 2007-08 season, set the record for most wins in a season with 31 in the same season, won 3 SEC East regular season titles, made the NCAA Tournament for 6 consecutive seasons, and led the Vols to their first Elite Eight appearance in school history in 2010. Pearl’s fast-paced offense and pressing defense had the Vols rolling, and there was no foreseeable end in sight.
But just as quickly as the Vols skyrocketed to new highs, they crashed to new lows. The 2010-11 season brought with it the darkest mark on UT basketball in its history, as Pearl was cited for lying to NCAA investigators over a minor recruiting violations, causing him to be suspended for 8 SEC games during the season. Once his team was ousted in embarrassing fashion in the 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament by Michigan, Tennessee was forced to fire Pearl in an attempt to appease the NCAA and avoid any long-term sanctions.
Pearl was slapped with a show-cause penalty and banned from coaching in the NCAA for 3 years, and the greatest run in Tennessee basketball history came to an abrupt end. Pearl would leave Tennessee with a 145-61 record in 6 seasons, good for 4th all-time at Tennessee, and went 8-6 in the NCAA Tournament with the Vols.
Following arguably the most successful head coach in Tennessee basketball history would be a tough task for any man to follow, but for Missouri State’s Cuonzo Martin it appeared especially tough.
Martin was hired to essentially be the “anti-Pearl” and bring UT out from under the watchful eye of the NCAA. He did just that, running a clean ship for the 3 seasons he coached the Vols. Fans, however, never took to Martin’s slowed tempo and calmer demeanor, and Martin never seemed to feel completely at ease on the Tennessee sideline.
Martin took a roster depleted of known talent after Pearl’s departure and led the Vols to a 19-15 record, identical to Pearl’s last team. Unlike Pearl’s last team, however, Martin’s failed to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. Martin’s second squad went 20-13, but the Big Dance eluded them once again, and Martin’s seat was beginning to grow hot.
The third season under Martin looked to be headed for another disappointing ending as the Vols fell to 16-11 late in the regular season, fanning the flames under Martin’s seat. But the team finally came together and pulled off an inspired run to the Sweet Sixteen, falling just short to Michigan in their bid for a second Elite Eight appearance. Though Martin’s best players were graduating and one leaving early for the NBA, hopes were still held aloft as Martin appeared to be coming back for a 4th season, providing some much-needed stability in a major sport for the University of Tennessee.
That stability would not be, however. Despite statements from both Martin and Athletic Director Dave Hart claiming both were working on new contract for the head coach, a fourth season would not be in store for Cuonzo. Martin opted for the University of California, and a week after his departure, the Vols hired their 19th head coach in program history, welcoming Southern Miss’s Donnie Tyndall into the fold. Martin left the Vols with a 63-41 record, going 3-1 in his lone NCAA Tournament appearance.
So what does this history lesson mean?
It means Donnie Tyndall is the head coach of a program with more single-digit win seasons (2) than Elite Eight appearances (1) since the NCAA Tournament began. It’s most-winningest era in the 60’s-80’s still saw its teams miss the NCAA Tournament 13 times in a 22 year span. The program has made only 20 NCAA Tournament appearances in the 75 years it has existed, going 19-21 in those 20 Tournaments. The last time the program won the conference tournament was 1977, and the last time they won the regular season conference championship was 2009.
In fact, since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 42 different teams have made it to the Final Four. Tennessee is not one of those 42 teams. Fellow SEC-mates Kentucky (6), Florida (4), Arkansas (3), LSU (2) and Mississippi State (1) have all made it to the Final Four. Even mid-major teams like George Mason, VCU, and Wichita State have made an appearance in the Final Four. Butler even made it twice, and both times advanced to the Championship game.
If mid-major Butler has more NCAA Tournament Championship appearances than Tennessee does Elite Eight appearances, then just how good can the UT job be?
Well, for starters, Tennessee is in a power conference. The SEC, while not as strong in basketball as it is in football, is still a top conference and consistently places 3-6 teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols have also won 20 or more games in 7 of the last 9 seasons and have made it to the Sweet Sixteen 4 times in the last 8 seasons.
But if the past has shown Vol fans one thing, it’s that Tennessee is not in the same conversation as teams like Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, UCLA, or even Arkansas when it comes to history. Tennessee has consistently looked to the mid-major ranks to hire coaches, and its most successful coaches (Mears, Pearl) came from out of nowhere to lead the Vols. Jerry Green was the only coach in the modern era to come from somewhere of note, and his stay was both successful and disappointing.
So while recent history has been much kinder to the Vols, the program as a whole is not an elite job. That does not mean it cannot be made into one, however, and Tennessee may be a “destination job” for Tyndall. But Tennessee simply does not stack up to top college basketball programs historically no matter how you look at the numbers.
So are the Vols a “destination job?” Maybe for up-and-coming coaches like Tyndall. Pearl and Mears were at one point such coaches as well. But Tennessee has never had a Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski, a coach who stays around for a few decades and brings home at least one National Championship. Tennessee may be a desirable job to a certain type of coach, but it is not elite. At least not historically.