Revisionist history makes this game quite easy to judge. We know now that Buzz Peterson didn’t make it longer than Jerry Green; he was dismissed after his fourth year at Tennessee. As Tennessee had hoped to do, they indeed hired the exact opposite of Green: Peterson didn’t make a single NCAA Tournament across four years while going 1-7 against Kentucky. (He did end up with a superior SEC Tournament record: 2-4 versus Green’s 1-4.) Of course I can tell you that this specific game was the moment any moron could’ve figured out Buzz Peterson was a poor hire.
But…well, it really did feel like the beginning of the end. This was a potential Signature Win for Peterson, even over a lesser Louisville team. He didn’t get many of those during his time at Tennessee. Had he won this game – or the 65-62 decision he’d lose at Wisconsin days later – perhaps the rest of the season with a talented roster turns around. It simply didn’t. This loss was the beginning of a three-game losing streak, which turned into six out of seven (including the second-most frustrating Buzz Peterson loss at Tennessee, the 104-100 double-overtime loss to Florida where Brett Effing Nelson made a game-tying three to ruin a classic Ron Slay/Vincent Yarbrough night), which turned into a 7-9 SEC slog only interrupted by a very random 76-74 win over Kentucky.
It never got better. Each year’s roster seemed to slowly dwindle in quality and rootability; Peterson’s best team was the 2002-03 squad that started 15-6 (7-3 SEC) and had a very real NCAA Tournament shot farted away with a 2-4 close and an awful first-round SEC Tournament loss. Tennessee would lose at home to Louisville, 72-69, the next season. The losses would only get worse. Promising starts (9-1 in 2003-04) would be derailed by bad losses (95-57 to Florida on a January Saturday where we went couch-shopping as a family at halftime) that would turn into season-destroying streaks (seven losses in nine games, 15-14 finish). Every potential positive was almost immediately removed by a worse negative.
The crowds grew worse every season. Thompson-Boling Arena began to tarp off sections of the upper deck, and for some games, the vast majority of the upper deck. Fans had the same enthusiasm and fervor as WalMart at 4 PM on a Tuesday. The teams began to be filled with truly unlikable players; Ron Slay’s unfortunately dampened career gave way to perhaps the most frustrating ‘leader’ in Tennessee basketball history, Scooter McFadgon. The only great thing Peterson appeared to be able to do was recruit quality guards. Despite his lack of upward momentum, he did manage to persuade C.J. Watson and, later, Kentucky Mr. Basketball Chris Lofton to Knoxville.
In 2004, you didn’t get to watch your team’s every move on the SEC Network or ESPN+. I’d sit with my grandfather next to a radio (which was also an alarm clock he’d owned for ~10 years) as Tennessee would embarrassingly lose to Chattanooga and then New Mexico by 19 while surviving Xavier and Belmont. After playing defense somewhat well his first two seasons, Tennessee was unable to stop pretty much anyone by the end of his tenure, peaking (?) with an 88-63 home loss to Vanderbilt where Tennessee was quite literally losing before tipoff even happened.
Peterson would be fired after a 14-17, 6-10 SEC season in which Tennessee managed to pair an overtime victory over Florida (83-76) with a demolition three days later by…a future Final Four Louisville team (85-62). Two days after the Vols’ season ended at the hands of Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, Peterson’s career at Tennessee was over.
Again, it’s pretty easy to sit here now and say that this game foretold so much, especially given what would come after Peterson. The Tennessean ran a poll about the firing of Peterson that returned results I genuinely would not have expected. Despite having four fewer NCAA Tournament appearances than his predecessor, Peterson’s approval rating was probably higher than Jerry Green’s, even at his very lowest point.
Showing actual love for the place that employs you really does matter. This is probably the key difference between Peterson and Green: whereas those who were there for the Green era suggest a complete disconnect between coach and fan base, I don’t doubt that Peterson genuinely really wanted to win a lot of games at Tennessee. He tried his hardest, but it didn’t work. No hard feelings, really; it’s just a hire that didn’t come up aces.
Talking about the Peterson era with anything other than disappointment is hard to do. The teams he had weren’t untalented, and surely, at least one of his four should’ve been able to sneak into an NCAA Tournament in some fashion. It’s not unreasonable to think that, given that poll above, Tennessee fans would have been more okay with a fifth year had Tennessee made even one run in March. As we’ll see later in this series, all it can take is one run in March to sway public opinion in remarkable fashion. This never happened for Buzz and, over time at other jobs, never would. Every hire is a roll of the dice, and sometimes, your roll is quite disappointing. It happens.
I really do believe that, if you were playing close enough attention, losses like this one set off giant alarm bells in one’s head. Every first-year coach has a bad loss here or there, but the ones that don’t work out typically have ones you can point back to and say “yeah, that was foreshadowing.” Cuonzo Martin’s 74-70 home loss to Austin Peay in December 2011. Kevin O’Neill closing out his first regular season with a 66-50 loss to a 10-win South Carolina team. Wade Houston’s Tennessee tenure featuring a home loss to Fordham two days before the New Year. All of these would’ve made future events easy to see coming.
Peterson’s is unique in that the opponent itself isn’t embarrassing. Louisville wasn’t a great team in 2001-02, but they were fine enough to make a road loss to them seem defensible. Sometimes, though, the manner in which a game unfolds casts a massive shadow over everything else. Buzz Peterson started his tenure by proverbially placing 13 men on the field; he’d close it with a whimper a few years later after many, many more embarrassing losses. After such a remarkable run of success, Tennessee had returned to their 1989-1995 modern low point as a program. Recruits weren’t coming. Fans weren’t coming. Points barely were coming. A savior needed to come quickly.
On March 8, 2005, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee faced the University of Detroit in the Horizon League conference championship game. Milwaukee was 23-5; Detroit, 14-15. A loss wouldn’t be survivable. A loss here maybe gets you an NIT bid. With a minute left, Milwaukee trailed, 58-56. The season of a lifetime was in danger to a 3 seed that had a 1-6 record earlier in the season. Star player Joah Tucker would hit three of his four free throws in the final minute, Detroit wouldn’t score, and Milwaukee would survive, 59-58. They’d make the NCAA Tournament as a 12 seed, where they’d see Alabama.
To be continued Friday.