April 16, 2014

Hart needs 'showstopper' for show to go on

As Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart begins his nationwide search for a basketball coach, the long time athletic administration should take note from the past and not his past when it comes to what's important in hiring a hoops coach.

As Hart looks for a new coach, one with head coaching experience makes sense, one who can recruit is a must, a good staff is an obvious requirement. But what Hart really needs is a showstopper.

And if there is any doubt, a simple review of history makes it very clear. Since 1990, in eleven seasons where a coach's name has not been Martin, Green or Pearl, Vol basketball has amassed 2 winning seasons, zero twenty win seasons, and zero NCAA tournament births. In the 13 years of Martin, Green and Pearl combined, the Vols have 11 NCAA tournament births including 4 trips to the sweet sixteen, 1 trip to the elite 8, and 11 seasons with 20 or more wins. Pearl obviously had the most success winning 145 games in 6 years. But Green and Martin combined for 152 wins, 77 losses, 5 NCAA tournament bids, and 20 win seasons in 6 out of 7 years. Yet, Green was run out of town and the line from most fans would be longer to pack up Martin's moving van than it would be to get to shake his hand.

Why would two coaches with a combined winning percentage of 66% be footnotes at best in the annuals of Tennessee basketball. They couldn't sell it or didn't want to sell it.

The two most popular coaches in Tennessee basketball history are Ray Mears and Bruce Pearl, who combined to win 71% of their games. Mears never won an NCAA Tournament game, but he was successful thanks in large part to great players like Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld. However, "The Ernie and Bernie show" was not what made Mears so beloved. It was showmanship. It was striped pants, running through the "T," unicycles and more. Mears made the game an event. He was a marketing guru before any school offered a marketing major. Decades later, Pearl followed in the same mold.

Tuesday, Hart said that Tennessee had a great history and a great tradition of basketball to go with a great venue. That is true. But the great tradition of Vol hoops is it's zaniness if you will. The tradition is the show. The reason Green and Martin were never really accepted is they didn't put on a show. Green often times never got out of his chair on the bench. He told the fans to go to K-Mart. Not only did Martin never get a technical. He never protested, stopped his foot, or take off his jacket. He did the bare miminum when it came to fan interaction.

Unicycles and fancy warm-up drills are not resume requirements, neither is chest painting and singing Rocky Top at a bar on the road before pre-game.

But the requirement for Tennessee basketball remains, to be a successful basketball coach at Tennessee it's not just about winning, you must have personality and must give the program a brand. It can't be done through a slogan or a marketing campaign. The head coach must create an identity, a brand that breaths and lives. It's something a fan has to feel not only when he or she walks into the arena, but also when they visit with the coach at a caravan stop or a radio show.

The competition for everyone's time is at an all-time demand. Options have never been more plentiful. So the battle for fans is more difficult than it's ever been. Of Tennessee's 19 home games this past season, all 19 were on television. If you want them to come, you better give them a reason, a show, a style, a personality.

If you don't, 9pm tip-offs become much later in the eyes of fans. Saturday afternoons in January become much colder. The excuses become more plentiful.

The challenge facing Dave Hart now is to hire someone that the fan base has reason to fall in love with. There's no doubt that the hire has to win and get the the tournament, but history says there's also no doubt that this hire must capture the hearts of the fans, to do that it takes more than wins.

And if any of this sounds familiar it should, I openly wondered about Martin's ability to "sell" on April 1, 2011 - four days after Martin was hired. Three years later with Martin having bolted to California leaving few behind disappointed, the search for a show continues and is needed now more than ever.

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