Eight Games, Pt. 3: Born to Run

In life, the thing you often want most is the thing that probably isn’t best for you. All sorts of factors can be leaned into here. This thing could be dangerous for you. Maybe it was good for you ten years ago; it may not be so good for you now. Perhaps the timing just isn’t right. Maybe this thing is quite expensive, and you’re on a bit of a budget crunch. It happens. Maybe you start rethinking why you wanted this in the first place and realize it wasn’t right for you.

For a large chunk of the month of March after Buzz Peterson was canned, Tennessee fans seemed obsessed with the idea of hiring Bob Knight, then at Texas Tech. (I imagine his Indiana resume requires no explanation.) At the time, Knight was 64 years old – again, the essential opposite of the young Buzz – and was in the midst of quite the successful second act. His Red Raiders had gone 23-9, 22-13, 23-11, then 22-11 with a newly-furnished Sweet Sixteen bid in March 2005. It was the school’s second-ever Sweet Sixteen run in the 64/68-team era. Obviously, what he was doing was quite remarkable.

As Tennessee’s search ran over the course of two weeks, there were three questions Tennessee was required to answer:

  1. Is this coach actually interested in coming to Tennessee?
  2. Can Tennessee afford this coach’s salary?
  3. Will this coach be available anytime soon?

Knight (behind Pat Summitt, of course) was first and foremost on the average Tennessee fan’s mind. As of March 24 – the morning of Texas Tech’s Sweet Sixteen game against 7-seed West Virginia – Knight was technically available. He’d reportedly made vague overtures that if Tennessee called, he’d listen. And, hey, Knight could be ‘available’ as soon as the next day, were Texas Tech (a 6 seed) to lose as a very slight favorite.

Quietly, Knight’s salary didn’t seem to be all that absurd to buy out. At the time, Knight was reportedly making about $400,000 a year at Texas Tech, which is before all sorts of bonuses (and his relentless appearances in commercials) probably got him north of $500K/year. Knight wasn’t hurting for money at this point of his career; this was more about loving the game than anything else. He even would lose that day to West Virginia, bringing Texas Tech’s 2004-05 season to a close right as Tennessee’s search seemed to heat up. But it never materialized, and reporting now suggests Knight was never that serious of a candidate beyond using Tennessee for a quick raise.

The search narrowed itself to four candidates. Three of them were already available if offered. Bobby Lutz (Charlotte, 47 years old) seemed to be the early leader; Chris Low reported that he both had a phone and in-person interview with athletic director Mike Hamilton. Lutz’s credentials were pretty good at the time. Through seven seasons at Charlotte, Lutz was 135-83 with five NCAA Tournament appearances (including a win in Jerry Green’s final game at Tennessee) and had consistently made Charlotte a top-three team in a conference that had four NCAA Tournament teams with six the previous season. (He was also from Hickory, North Carolina, a town we will obviously never hear about in this series again.)

Lutz fell out late in the running, as did UAB’s Mike Anderson (45 years old), who was 65-34 in three seasons with UAB and had already taken the Blazers to a Sweet Sixteen the previous season. Anderson consistently hung around as a potential candidate but never seemed to materialize in the upper crust.

The third, and briefly most likely option, was Dana Altman of Creighton. We know a lot more about Altman now, but at this time, he was a 46-year-old who had coached in the Great Plains for all but one year of his coaching career. He’d been at Creighton for 12 seasons, completely changing the program’s trajectory and overseeing six NCAA Tournament bids in the seven seasons leading into this coaching search. Creighton had won at least 20 games seven years in a row, which seemed like an obvious grand-slam hire to anyone following closely.

Altman, for reasons I can’t explain beyond the shoulder shrug ASCII guy, never caught on with Tennessee fans. You see in that poll above that he barely outranked Bobby Lutz, a guy who is named Bobby Lutz. His resume was fabulous, and he was widely considered to be in the top two for the Tennessee job, though he never seemed to express his interest publicly.

Throughout a two-week period of March, Mike Hamilton interviewed several candidates, gauged the interest of many more, and seemed to simply…wait it out. It was a bit different pre-Twitter, but even then, two weeks from fired coach to hired coach feels like a lifetime as a fan. It’s like aging in cat/dog years; it simply seems much, much longer than it is. Hamilton was waiting out one final candidate who had overseen his own surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen. That candidate had the backing of one very important historical figure in Tennessee’s tapestry.

NEXT PAGE: Dancing in the dark

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