Eight Games, Pt. 1: Another Green World


The immediate reaction to this game is a simple “holy (REDACTED).” Top 25 teams do not lose games by 35 points often; in the last decade, it’s happened about once a season. To narrow it down further, an unranked team has beaten a ranked opponent by 35 or more points just three times in the last decade. When it happens, it is an actual Event that you stop and gawk at.

It remains one of the most shocking results in modern Tennessee history in any sport. This game immediately broke every record Tennessee had in terms of demolishing a Top 25 team’s existence; never before had Tennessee beaten a Top 25 opponent by more than 28 (87-59 over Kentucky in 1968), and even that was the only 25+ point win over a ranked opponent in program history. 14 years later, a Cuonzo Martin-coached Tennessee would beat a lifeless 25th-ranked Kentucky by 30. That Kentucky team would end up missing the NCAA Tournament, and so would Tennessee.

This felt and feels different. Tennessee would use this game to spur an out-of-nowhere six-game winning streak, including a sweep of Kentucky (68-61 on the season’s final day), that led to Tennessee getting their first-ever East Division title and their first share of any SEC-related honors since 1981-82. Florida recovered immediately, too. They went 3-1 to close the season, won an SEC Tournament game, and had three losses the rest of the way. Each of those three losses were by one point. They happened in a road game against Vanderbilt (71-70, overtime), an SEC Tournament game against #22 Arkansas (75-74), and a Sweet Sixteen loss to Gonzaga as a 6 seed (73-72). You may remember the last one. Florida fans may remember all three. To go from talking about a deficit of 35 points to a collective deficit of three is a positive comment on Billy Donovan’s coaching abilities.

Tennessee took the opposite approach, yet it was familiar. When Tennessee lost, they ensured that the entire basketball world would know they lost. Tennessee parlayed their surprise run through SEC play into a first-round SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State. They somehow still ended up with a 4 seed in March despite the majority of available metrics pointing them towards somewhere in the 5-6 range. Delaware on Friday, March 12, 1999 was relatively easy; a 62-52 snoozer. Even better, Tennessee’s 5-seed opponent, Wisconsin, scored 32 points in one of the worst NCAA Tournament games ever played: a 43-32 loss to Southwest Missouri State, coached by Steve Alford.

That Sunday represented Tennessee’s best-ever-at-the-time chance to make the Sweet Sixteen. It immediately turned into one of Tennessee basketball’s darkest days.

In a season of extremes, this game set the record for Tennessee’s worst loss in program history as a ranked team playing a then-unranked opponent. Is it not perfection, the true embodiment of who we’re told Jerry Green is, that in the same season Tennessee sets a record for their biggest-ever demolition of a Top 25 team, they turn around and take arguably the biggest beatdown they’ve ever taken on a national stage?

Somehow, Year Three of Jerry Green was a stranger, more successful, even less-linear version of what came before. Tennessee would open #19 in the country, which probably felt right for a team returning a good amount of talent that had also lost by 30 points to Southwest Missouri State. Perhaps learning a lesson from the front-loaded 1997-98 schedule, Green scheduled lightly; Tennessee didn’t face a ranked opponent in the 1999-2000 season until January 8th. And yet: Tennessee just kept winning. 1-0 turned into 2-0, which turned into 11-0. One night they’d beat West Virginia by 40; two nights later, they’d beat Middle Tennessee by a single point. Then they’d play a Tulsa team that would make the Elite Eight under Bill Self and lost by 20. Then they turned around and went 2-0 to start SEC play, both games on the road, one over #21 LSU.

Then that turned into a home loss to unranked Vanderbilt. Then they rattled off four wins in a row, two over AP Top 10 teams – one in double overtime over Florida by two points, the other an epic beatdown over #7 Auburn on a January Tuesday by 29. (For 13 years, this stood as Tennessee’s second-biggest whooping of a Top 25 team. That’s right: for 13 years, Jerry Green owned the two largest demolitions of Top 25 opponents in Tennessee basketball history.) The rest of that season played out in volatile-yet-wonderful fashion. Tennessee would rise as high as 5th in the AP Poll then lose by 13 to Vanderbilt. They’d jump back to 8th after sharing the East Division title with Kentucky and Florida then lose in the first round of the SEC Tournament to a South Carolina team they swept in regular season play.

March arrived. Tennessee was a 4 seed again. This time, their 13 seed – Louisiana-Lafayette – was up to the challenge. Tennessee had to squeeze one out, 63-58. Then they drew 5-seed Connecticut – the defending champions! – and controlled the game for a full 40 minutes, winning 65-51. Tennessee wasn’t winning prettily like Green had hoped, but they were winning, and suddenly, they were in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in the 64/68-team era.

Simultaneously, Tennessee’s bracket began to implode around them. 1-seed Stanford lost in the second round to 8-seed North Carolina. 2-seed Cincinnati got tossed by 7-seed Tulsa, the team Tennessee had lost to a few months prior. 3-seed Ohio State received a semi-blowout at the hands of 6-seed Miami (FL). It was March 24, 2000, and Tennessee entered the night as the highest-remaining seed in the Southeast Regional. All they had to do was, at worst, defeat an 8-seed that lost 13 games in the regular season, followed by either a 6-seed with one Top 25 win or a 7-seed they’d played before and now knew how to beat.

With six minutes left, Tennessee led 62-55. Uber-talented Brendan Haywood, star freshman and North Carolina’s best player, had fouled out with eight minutes remaining. It was all setting up beautifully for Tennessee; earlier, Tulsa had defeated Miami (FL), which meant if Tennessee just held onto their lead, they’d be in the Elite Eight for the first time ever and one win over a 7-seed and former opponent away from the school’s first ever Final Four. They didn’t know this at the time, but if they were to make it, their Final Four opponent would be 5-seed Florida: another team seeded lower than Tennessee, and a team Tennessee swept in the regular season.

Over the final six minutes of this game, Tennessee’s offensive play-by-play looks as follows.

  • Jon Higgins (35.8% 3PT%) three-point miss
  • Jon Higgins (35.3% 2PT%) floater miss; offensive rebound by Vincent Yarbrough, who is fouled; Yarbrough (73.6% FT%) makes two free throws (64-57 Tennessee, 4:48 left)
  • Vincent Yarbrough turnover
  • Ron Slay turnover
  • Tony Harris turnover
  • Tony Harris (37.8% 3PT%) three-point miss
  • Ron Slay (52.5% 2PT%) two-point miss; tackles UNC rebounder for foul
  • Ron Slay (40.7% 3PT%) three-point miss
  • Jon Higgins (35.8% 3PT%) three-point miss
  • Tony Harris (37.8% 3PT%) three-point make (70-67 North Carolina, 13.6 seconds left)

Three points in 4:34 of basketball; nine possessions over around 5.5 minutes of play that result in two total points and no made field goals. A team that begins to turtle offensively, using a lot of the shot clock with little penetration. A coach that looks frustrated and upset. A crowd experiencing all three major emotions at once.

That’s the Inflection Point. That’s holding in the monster mudpie. That’s how you go from near-100% on the Green Approval Index to a fanbase that slowly begins to hate you.

(Side note: the most heartbreaking part of this video review, by miles, is with 4:48 left in the game as an announcer says that Tennessee “looks the part of the much more excited team” and that North Carolina “looks very tired out there.”)

Tennessee would play one final season of basketball under Jerry Green. Somehow, they got to experience every little bit of what Jerry Green brings in all of four months. The team Tennessee lost to North Carolina with would return 84% of its scoring. Yarbrough, Slay, and Higgins were a year older; Isiah Victor and Tony Harris were seniors; Marcus Haislip would get better off the bench. Just like they did in 1998-99, Tennessee began the year 9th in the AP Poll.

Just like they did in 1999-2000, Tennessee would start off with a long winning streak: 9-0 to begin. They would similarly end this particular streak with a 107-89 beatdown at the hands of #14 Virginia. And then, suddenly, everything was just fine. Tennessee rattled off win after win. They beat #12 Syracuse on the road by 13. They beat #23 Iowa at a neutral site by 12. They started 3-0 in SEC play, and on January 16, they were ranked #4 in the nation, tying the highest AP Poll ranking in school history. Final Four dreams were not only rational, they were the expectation. This – this, finally – was what Tennessee basketball could be.

Tennessee lost at Rupp Arena. That’s fine. They then lost four road games in a row. Then the losing bled over to a three-game home stretch against Kentucky (103-95), Florida (88-82), and Georgia (88-76). 16-1 and 3-0 in the SEC turned into 18-9 and 5-8 in the blink of an eye. I’ll turn it over to Will Shelton, formerly of Rocky Top Talk:

I was a student at UT during these final two years of Green’s tenure, and every night in the student section you’d be surrounded by a group of underclassmen who didn’t know anything about Wade Houston going 5-22 just a few years earlier.  To these students, and the other new fans, Tennessee had always been good at basketball.  So when the Vols struggled and played lazy, nonexistent defense with seemingly no instruction to do otherwise from the bench, the fans got very frustrated and very vocal.  The university paid for orange t-shirts for all the students for the three game home stretch that said “NOT IN OUR HOUSE!”, in reference to the aforementioned undefeated streak at home.  And I think mine is still in a trash can somewhere in Thompson-Boling.

How did Jerry Green respond to all this newfound criticism and poor play from his team?  He went on the radio and said if Tennessee fans didn’t like it, they could go to K-Mart instead.

The Tennessean, February 20, 2001

Tennessee randomly won three games in a row to end their SEC season – how perfect, honestly – and then won the first SEC Tournament game of Green’s tenure. And then they lost to Charlotte as an 8 seed in a listless performance, bringing it full circle to 1997-98. Green would, uh, “resign” “on” “amicable” “terms” five days after Tennessee’s failed season ended.

I wonder how a career like Green’s would have survived the Information Age. In an era where public opinion shifts at the drop of a hat and where reactionary takes are promoted and even encouraged, Green would have theoretically been perfect fodder for Twitter users. Replacing KMart with WalMart or similar is easy enough; run that quote out today and it would actually be a hit among a certain subset of Tennessee faithful, not to mention deemed national news by those outside the fanbase. The constant up-and-down of Green’s career would have kept Tennessee in the news relentlessly.

I think of all this, and then I realize that Green essentially lived in the foundational stage of the Information Age itself. Several articles from this time reference Green being surprised at how much buzz his comments surrounding Tennessee were receiving on the Internet. Prior to 1999-2000, Green lived through a temporary crisis where Tony Harris gave an interview to the Commercial Appeal where he claimed he was being coached too hard and wasn’t given any freedom by Green. This was said by Harris when he still had two years left at Tennessee. At any given point of his time at Tennessee, particularly from 1998 onward, it seemed like everything surrounding Green was permanently and simultaneously at the verge of collapse and the brink of massive success. It’s at this moment where I realize Jerry Green may be the closest we’ll ever get to Basketball Coach Kanye West, in this specific sense.

Google “Jerry Green Tennessee” and you’ll come upon a laundry list of Tennessee message board threads where people my age or younger attempt to figure out the ultimate question: was Jerry Green Good? (Adopt it for 2021: was Jerry Green Bae or Trash?) After years of investigating and a month of working on this specific post, my answer is: I don’t know. So that’s why I reached out to a few friends of mine from the former Hoopsville message board to hear their thoughts. All of these are anonymous so to protect identities. I think.

  • “There is no UT player on those teams that doesn’t believe Pearl would have gotten at least one of those teams to a Final Four.”
  • “The boys didn’t care about winning for Jerry and Jerry didn’t care about winning for UT.”
  • “[The 2000 North Carolina game] was a microcosm of the entire Jerry Green era, really. He had no control over that team. They knew he was a goofball and just laughed at him and did what they wanted to.”
  • “Jerry was the biggest jerk [at Tennessee].”
  • “My overall sense of Green or “Uncle Jed,” as he was known to some, was that he simply was not capable as a coach and didn’t really have a very good idea of what he was doing, trying to accomplish, or how to motivate his players.”

The case against Jerry Green is fairly obvious, at least to the haters. Green was handed special talent by way of Kevin O’Neill’s recruiting, getting to spend his first three seasons coaching Tony Harris, Isiah Victor, C.J. Black, and Charles Hathaway, along with two years of Brandon Wharton. Those are all fairly good players, all of whom were notable high school recruits. After O’Neill’s departure, Green never seemed to fix some key depth issues on the roster. He recruited Vincent Yarbrough, Ron Slay, Jon Higgins (forgotten Top 100 recruit), and Marcus Haislip (future lottery pick????), but by 2001, Tennessee had a rotation with about seven playable guys. It wasn’t perfect. Factor in all the other stuff we’ve talked about – extreme outcomes, up-and-downs, oscillating seasons, a 1-4 SEC Tournament record, the 2000 North Carolina game, and Green’s supposed dislike for Tennessee fans – and it makes sense why no one wants to remember him anymore.

The issue of being someone born after all of this is that I’m unable to believe it’s that simple. Kevin O’Neill’s final Tennessee roster featured Wharton, Black, Hathaway, with his first two seasons featuring 7-footer Steve Hamer, a future NBA player. O’Neill had his chance to coach a solid amount of talent, too. He never posted a winning season at Tennessee. He never went better than 6-10 against SEC competition. Tennessee scored 57.2 points per game in his final season (again, with Wharton/Black/Hathaway), a number that is still far and away Tennessee’s worst in program history. He went 1-13 against Top 25 opponents. Of Tennessee’s ten worst scoring efforts in the last 30 years, O’Neill owns five. He is considered a jerk of legendary proportions and was abusive towards his players, with much of his hatred being reserved for Aaron Green, an East Tennessee kid whose career goal was to play for his favorite basketball team:

O’Neill’s favorite target at Tennessee, according to those in and around the program from 1994-97, was Aaron Green, a 3-point specialist from Cleveland, Tenn., whom O’Neill christened “Hee-Haw” and “Henry the Hick,” nicknames that spread all over campus and clung to him like skunk spray for the duration of his career.

“He’d always poke fun at me for being from the country,” said Green, now a graduate assistant under Bruce Pearl. “The funny thing is, he was from the country, too. But I didn’t feel very comfortable ragging him about it.”

That was probably for the best. O’Neill once made Green take his car home — not home to his dorm. Home, as in back to Cleveland.

“Looking back, he didn’t want Aaron Green around,” Johnson said. “Did everything in his power to get him to quit. I don’t know why.”

All of that just to go 36-47. His career record is 197-240 (33-49 NBA) and 144-227 everywhere he coached after 1994. His most recent employer, the Pac-12 Network, fired him because he was obnoxious to the point that Richard Jefferson seemed like a superior analyst.

Jerry Green took those same players, added a few new ones, kept the same key core, and went 89-36 in four seasons. He delivered Tennessee’s best NCAA Tournament performance ever, their longest sustained run of success in two decades, their first top 5 ranking in 31 years, their first-ever East Division title, and the second-ever run of 20+ wins in four straight seasons. Tennessee went 17-14 against Top 25 opponents under Green; they won 18 games against Top 25 competition total from 1984 to 1997. Even in the game that this very post is about, Jerry Green was given local and national credit for saving Tennessee’s season when it seemed semi-lost.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Green is that the coach who followed him (Buzz Peterson of Tulsa) got to bring back Yarbrough, Haislip, Higgins, and Slay for his first Tennessee team. They went 15-16.

…then again, all you have to do is watch this video, see the players all wait for Ron Slay to say something positive about Jerry Green, and you can kind of figure it out for yourself. It couldn’t last. There wasn’t a path.

To firmly land on a Jerry Green Take as someone who wasn’t there for it is nearly impossible. Green’s accomplishments firmly rank him as one of the five best coaches in program history to go with the best winning percentage since Ray Mears roamed the sidelines. You could reasonably have him in your top four. You could also hate Jerry Green, find him to be an obnoxious load of a human, and be entirely defended in your opinion.

The Jerry Green Dilemma will last forever. That’s okay. It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having. When you’re sitting there after the tornado has subsided, sometimes, all you can say is: “what was that?”

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