Eight Games, Pt. 2: Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

After Jerry Green was…uh, “retiring,” Tennessee embarked on a national search to find a coach the program could hold onto for several years. The typical cliche you hear when a coaching search happens is generally the same: the new coach needs to be the opposite of the previous one. If that didn’t work, let’s try this. (We’re going to briefly ignore Green’s 71% win rate and overall general success at Tennessee in a short timespan.)

The last coach was old? Let’s go young. The last coach was a jerk? Let’s try a nice(r) guy. The last coach couldn’t win when it counted? Go find a guy that wins in March. As a hire, Buzz Peterson reasonably met all three basic points: Peterson was 38 when Tennessee hired him. Most who know Buzz seem to describe him as a generally nice person, which was realistically a refreshing thing to hear after Jerry Green had asked you to meet him in the KMart parking lot. Lastly, Peterson had just five years of head coaching experience, but he took Appalachian State to the 2000 NCAA Tournament and, in his one year at Tulsa, won the NIT championship. Lest you doubt all of this, it’s in the newspaper, so it seemed true enough.

The Tennessean, April 3, 2001 The Tennessean, April 5, 2001

All of that seemed like a fine enough resume to Tennessee, who hired Peterson after a fairly short search that included a run at…well, you let me know how you feel about this list.

All of the coaches on that list would have been fascinating experiments for various reasons. Of course, knowing what we know in 2021, at least three of those coaches (and probably a fourth, Gregg Marshall, pre-self-inflicted controversy) would be first-ballot entrants in a College Basketball Coaching Hall of Fame. Tennessee didn’t know that at the time, and to be fair, neither did anyone else. Young coaches are exciting, obviously, but every single one represents a roll of the dice without a ton of information about how great or not-great each one is. We have educated guesses, yes, but even those educated guesses don’t always work out. (Check out Nebraska football for a fretful version of this exact experiment.)

That’s a long way of saying “yeah, I get it.” Left out of the bio is that Peterson’s dad was a Tennessee graduate and Peterson went to several games growing up. Passion for the team and for the fans, something that Jerry Green never quite nailed down, would not be an issue for Buzz. Along with that, it wasn’t as if Tennessee was the only school pursuing Peterson. They had to battle off South Carolina for his services. Along with that, the Tennessean reported that only one candidate from that above list was a true finalist: Marshall at Winthrop. (Jeff Lebo, then at Tennessee Tech, was the other.)

So, sure, you hired a guy with a light resume, but he loves Tennessee and I guess that counts for something.

NEXT PAGE: What do I get?

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