Eight Games, Pt. 1: Another Green World

Before

This entire post should probably be prefaced with a disclaimer: in order, I was ages 4 to 7.35 or thereabouts for the Jerry Green Era. It was brief, eventful, and also something I have zero true recollection of. The temptation to set it and forget it by making this series Seven Games and starting with Buzz Peterson (or Six Games and Bruce Pearl) is quite real; none of what you’re about to read is based on personal experience. The majority of readers of this website are 35 or younger, meaning at very best, the oldest among them (who would’ve been age 14 or 15 for Green’s final season) probably have vague memories at best.

This is why Green simply has to be included in any analysis of modern Tennessee basketball. You look at the guy’s resume in all of four seasons at Tennessee and you come away amazed:

  • Four NCAA Tournament appearances after one in the 14 seasons prior to his arrival
  • Tennessee’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance in the 64/68-team era
  • 71.2% win percentage (the best by any coach since Ray Mears’ retirement in 1977)
  • Back-to-back 4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (tying Tennessee’s highest seed achieved)
  • Prior to the 2021-22 season, the third-most NCAA Tournament bids by a coach at Tennessee (Don DeVoe & Bruce Pearl, six each)

And then you look at that and think two things:

  • Why was this only a four-season experiment?
  • Why did Jerry Green never get a head coaching position again despite only being 57 at the time of his departure?

To get there, you’ve got to go back a tad to 1997, when Green was hired. After three seasons of Kevin O’Neill (who we’ll discuss more later), Tennessee found themselves in the unenviable spot of trying to hire another college basketball coach – their third coaching search in eight years. They hadn’t touched the NCAA Tournament since 1989 and really hadn’t gotten close to doing so.

The famous line used by Green to describe his arrival to Tennessee is a simple one: “I wasn’t the first choice, but I was the choice.” Green’s resume probably gets mild chuckles now – a 28-26 run over his final two seasons at UNC-Asheville, a 72-70 record at Oregon – but context for each of those is important. Green led UNC-Asheville from NAIA to Division II to Division I, and only in his final season were the Bulldogs allowed to play a full Big South schedule. Instead of sticking with that, Green decided to become an assistant for Roy Williams at Kansas.

After four years, Green came to Oregon, a program that hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1961 and hadn’t even been in the vicinity of a bid in 15 years. By year three (1994-95), Green had taken the Ducks to the Tournament and achieved their first AP Poll ranking since 1977. He wouldn’t make it back in his time there, but think of it like this: an Oregon NCAA Tournament bid in 1995 was considered to be on the level of Rutgers finally reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2021. It was a fairly big deal.

So, in retrospect, that’s likely what Tennessee was hoping for with Green: a guy who came into a job with little success in recent history, almost instantly turned things around, and gave the program something it hadn’t had in a very long time, if ever.

In this lens, Green succeeded almost immediately. Green’s first season of 1997-98 resulted in an NCAA Tournament appearance, the first winning record in SEC play since 1989-90, and Tennessee’s first season with three wins over AP Top 25 teams since 1992-93. Tennessee would lose a heartbreaking 8/9 matchup to Illinois State (coached by Kevin Stallings) that March, 82-81, which has blissfully been wiped from the Internet. (Except for the final play.) After such a successful opening season, it only made sense that 1998-99 would be even better.

Tennessee started the 1998-99 season 9th in the AP Poll, their highest preseason ranking since also starting out 9th in 1975-76. At this moment in history, the Green Approval Index was probably close to 100%. It wasn’t hard to understand why. Tennessee returned 96.6% of the points scored from their surprise 1997-98 season and added Vincent Yarbrough – the 11th-ranked recruit in the class – to the mix. They had three former high school All-Americans on the roster. (I couldn’t find consistent All-American rosters any more, but the next roster that seems to match this level of talent is 2006-07 Tennessee.) The level of hype then, I assume, had to be fairly similar to the level of hype I remember feeling for the 2007-08, 2009-10, and 2018-19 seasons.

On night one of the season, things immediately went south.

Well, southwest, as the game was played in New Mexico, but whatever. Tennessee lost to Arizona (featuring Jason Terry) 73-72 after getting two shots blocked in the final 10 seconds. That’s a fairly defensible loss! Disappointing, but defensible; Arizona would go on to be a 4 seed in this season’s NCAA Tournament. A couple of snoozers followed this, which led into Tennessee traveling to Miami (Ohio) on a Thursday in November for…reasons. The RedHawks had Wally Szczerbiak, they were only one-point underdogs, and what happened next was like a trainwreck everyone today would’ve seen coming.

After this loss, Tennessee would fall all the way to 25th in the AP Poll; a week later, they were out entirely and would only return once from December through February. What followed the Miami (Ohio) debacle (a team that ended up making the Sweet Sixteen because, again, Wally) was a wild mish-mash of results. Some nights Tennessee looked quite good (56-53 win over #20 Pittsburgh; January wins over Alabama by 36, LSU by 35 and South Carolina by 29); other nights, Tennessee looked like smoking garbage (a 55-53 loss to an awful Saint Joseph’s team that finished in the 160s in RPI; a 75-68 overtime squeezer over a 14-14 South Florida team; January losses to #17 Auburn by 28 and unranked Florida by 21). While I wasn’t there to confirm, this seems like true basketball roulette. You simply never knew what you’d get with a Tennessee team that seemed to have no idea themselves.

The lone agreed-upon bright spot stood as a bright spot for two decades and was the least-predictable result of all: a cold Tuesday in Lexington, Kentucky, facing the 6th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats who won the national championship the previous season. Tennessee entered as an 11-point underdog with zero signature wins and one objectively terrible loss; Kentucky demolished #2 Maryland at home a month prior. It seemed like an obvious mismatch.

Until it wasn’t.

For the first time in 20 years, Tennessee won at Rupp Arena. Having watched this game twice now, it is one of the worst offensive games played by a Tennessee basketball team in the last 25 years. At the time, it was Tennessee’s lowest point total in a win in 15 years; it remains their lowest point total in a win since 1984. Tennessee’s Effective Field Goal Percentage was 37.5%, Kentucky’s 32.7%. Tennessee scored all of nine points in the final six minutes. And nobody cared.

In the most frustrating Tennessee basketball season in years, Jerry Green had accomplished the impossible. He’d won at Rupp Arena. He’d delivered Tennessee’s first win over Kentucky in six years. He’d gotten Tennessee back on track for their second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, something they hadn’t done in 16 years. This win alone would erase some of the negative balance this season had caused.

And yet: because Tennessee was Tennessee, they immediately turned this newfound momentum into the aforementioned 21-point loss to Florida barely 11 days later. February became even worse: they started with a 17-point beating by #23 Arkansas, which was followed by a home loss to a Mississippi State team that was NIT-bound. On February 10, 1999, Tennessee was 14-7, 6-4 in SEC play, third in the East Division, and a world away from where they imagined they’d be three months prior.

Meanwhile, 23rd-ranked Florida was in the middle of their best season in five years. Billy Donovan took over the program from Lon Kruger in 1996-97. After a pair of false start years (13-17 in ’96-97, 14-15 the next season), 1998-99 began to be the foundation of Donovan putting it all together. The Gators were 16-5 (7-4 in SEC play), had beaten #5 Kentucky 75-68 six days prior, and were building a legitimate foundation around three freshmen: Teddy Dupay (the #20 recruit in America), Mike Miller (#13), and Udonis Haslem (#72). This collective combined for 33.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG, and a whole lot of pain for older opponents.

The Gators did enter this game on the back of their own ugly home loss – 79-68 to Ole Miss – but in their case, this immediately followed the biggest win the program had posted in several years. Plus, they were in the midst of a surprisingly good season after entering 1998-99 unranked. One team was trending upwards; the other seemed to have no idea what it was on any given night.

At the time, Tennessee only had one win against an RPI Top 50 team: the 47-46 win at Rupp Arena on January 12. They were 1-5 against the RPI Top 50 as a whole, actually; think of that being the rough equivalent of Syracuse going 1-7 against Quadrant 1 opponents in 2020-21. Tennessee wasn’t out of the field, but at some point, you’ve got to beat good teams. Florida was a good team. Tennessee would be expected to win this game (they were favored by 6.5, for the curious); if they didn’t, the opportunity for true Signature Wins the rest of the way was dwindling fast. Among their remaining five opponents, Kentucky was the only ranked one, and it’s not like any rational Tennessee fan was expecting a sweep of Kentucky.

In retrospect, this feels like one of the first inflection points for Jerry Green; a test he can either pass happily or fail miserably. Tennessee was 6-4 in the SEC and Florida 7-4, but Kentucky sat at 8-3 and was #8 in the nation at the time. The prospect of keeping pace with these two, considering Tennessee’s own preseason expectations, was a must. That’s how we arrive here, February 10, 1999, Tim Brando on the call, as Tennessee stares down a must-win game.

NEXT PAGE: The unforgettable fire

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