Eight Games, Pt. 7: Return to Hot Chicken

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 three times a week in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

By Tennessee’s standards of traditionally misfiring on anywhere from one to nine candidates publicly before settling on their Break in Case of Emergency hire, this was as smooth as it could possibly get. Donnie Tyndall was fired on March 27 from Tennessee; Rick Barnes was released from Texas on March 29. Pretty much instantly, Barnes rose to the top of Tennessee’s list, and two days later, he was the sixth coach in 15 years for Tennessee basketball.

The last fragment there seems flippant, but it’s noteworthy because at one point in time, Tennessee’s three main sports (football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball) were beacons of stability. From 1974 (Pat Summitt’s first year) to 1989 (Don DeVoe’s final season), Tennessee had two football coaches, two men’s basketball coaches, and one women’s basketball coach. Even through the 2000s, the first two programs were still quite stable: Pat Summitt, of course, coached the Lady Vols from 1974 to 2012, while Tennessee football only had three different coaches from 1970 to 2008.

Basketball, however, sort of portended what was to come for the other major programs at Tennessee. From 1997 (counting Kevin O’Neill’s final run) to now, Tennessee has had seven different coaches try their hand at running Tennessee’s basketball program. In that time, Tennessee has had a legitimately successful run of play. They’ve made 14 of the last 23 NCAA Tournaments (more than all but 23 programs in college basketball), have made six Sweet Sixteens (more than all but 18), and rank out as KenPom’s 24th-best program over the last 25 years.

Think about that for a minute. That’s a lot of consistent success. Yet it’s come by way of seven different coaches, none of which will have seen a seventh season at Tennessee until Rick Barnes begins the 2021-22 campaign this fall. All sorts of ailments have kept promising coaches from lasting longer: a lack of fanbase support; NCAA troubles; a lack of administrative support; more NCAA troubles. In short, Tennessee has badly needed stability for a long time.

All you have to do is look at the university’s supposed flagship program in terms of how important stability can be. After 39 years with three coaches, Tennessee football has seen five coaches in 13 years even before you count various interims and care-takers. Only one coach has made it longer than three years, and it really may be reasonable to say that he’s the most-despised coach in university history.

Barnes came into a very, very unstable situation and knew he needed time. Tennessee was willing to give him more than enough to reform a program from top to bottom.

NEXT PAGE: Big day coming

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