Saturday, April 14, 2007

Buzz Peterson is to Bruce Pearl as Doc Rivers is to...

An excellent "state of the Celtics" piece from Bill Simmons in discussing how Boston's hopes are tied to the NBA Draft Lottery and Kevin Durant/Greg Oden on May 22, among other things, has elements that remind me of the conversation during the last days of Buzz Peterson in Knoxville. You can read Simmons' piece for all the info and finer points on the Celtics' current situation, including what to do with Doc Rivers and how the mighty and proud have fallen. But Doc's current state of limbo - where lots of people seem to love the person, not the coach, and that love of the person is leading to consideration of extending his contract, even though the Celtics have regressed during his tenure, lost 18 straight games this season, and are the second worst team in the NBA - brings back conversations I had with people at the end of Buzz Peterson's fourth season in Knoxville.

Peterson arrived on the heels of Jerry Green, who won 20 games four straight seasons, made it to the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons, including one trip to the Sweet 16, and had taken Tennessee (or, if you like, been the guy who took Kevin O'Neill's players) to the proverbial next level. Then Green was removed for saying things like "If you don't like it, go to K-Mart" and having no real control over the players.

Buzz Peterson - the hot young prospect, late of Tulsa fame, who had that North Carolina connection (the guy was Michael Jordan's roommate, after all) - won the hearts of many in the orange-buckled Bible belt by standing up at his initial press conference and saying "The number one thing in my life is my faith in Jesus Christ." He was incredibly snakebitten in his first season (2001-02), as the Vols lost seven of nine games by 16 points and two overtimes in a 32 day period. And they were all quality losses: at Memphis, at Louisville, West Virginia, at Wisconsin, Florida, at Georgia, at Mississippi State. The Vols also lost Ron Slay to an ACL tear, and fans were left shaking their heads at our bad luck, but knew it could only get better from here as the team just missed the NIT at 15-16.

In 2003, the Vols were snakebitten in a completely different way. With a good team with great heart, the Vols won six straight SEC games, capped off by a victory over #4 Florida in Knoxville, and entered the bubble conversation. Even a late season slide was corrected by wins in the final two games to move the Vols to 17-10, 9-7 in the SEC. Then, in a span of less than 48 hours, Jon Higgins was kicked off the team for academic issues in one class, and Jim Harrick's Georgia team was banned from postseason play, which moved the Vols from a cushy first round game in the SEC Tournament, to an automatic bye and a date with tourney-bound Auburn. Without Jon Higgins, the Vols lost to Auburn, then were inexplicably left out of the tournament, and then got dumped in the first round of the NIT.

From there, it went downhill. Peterson had brought some talent to Knoxville, no doubt - he stole CJ Watson from Las Vegas, then got Scooter McFadgon as a transfer from Memphis. But in his third season, playing without Ron Slay, Marcus Haislip and Jon Higgins for the first time, the Vols struggled. They went 7-9 in the SEC, made the NIT but were again bounced in the opening round at George Mason. But the Vols brought almost everyone back, including the leading scorers in Watson, McFadgon and Brandon Crump. Then Peterson offered a scholarship to Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, and Chris Lofton said yes. So Peterson - super likeable - was still in great shape, because everyone just assumed that the 2004-05 season would be the breakthrough year, with everyone coming back and all. No one was trying to get rid of this guy on the eve of that season.

The Vols opened the season in the Maui Invitational, and absolutely dominated Stanford. You had to stay up late to catch this thing, but watching that game made you believe everything you wanted to believe. And that was the last time Buzz Peterson felt secure.

The next two games in the Maui Invitational were a 13 point beating by North Carolina, followed by a 25 point beating from Texas. The Vols struggled to beat Wofford in the home opener, then lost to UT-Chattanooga. In Knoxville, because we never would've played them in Chattanooga, they're so far beneath us. The unwritten rule of big time college basketball is that you don't lose to the lesser schools from your own state. Period. Narrow victories over Xavier and Alabama State led to a 18 point loss at New Mexico. Two games later the Vols lost to Nebraska in Knoxville. Suddenly, you were worried about more than just making the tournament.

The SEC season opened with a "big" win at Georgia. Then the Vols came home and lost to Vanderbilt by 25 points. That's totally inexcuseable in any season. And you started hearing terms like "lifeless" and "hopeless". And you started hearing calls for Buzz's job. The Vols still had some talent - they inexplicably won at Florida in overtime - but the next two games were a 23 point beating at Louisville, and a 22 point beating from Kentucky in Knoxville. Those would be the precursors of a seven of eight slide. And Buzz was sweating more.

Tennessee finished the year 14-17, 6-10 in the SEC. With all that talent having returned. As the Vols went to the SEC Tournament that year, people were talking about his job. Mike Hamilton had already made up his mind, but we didn't know that.

And some people were making every excuse in the book for Peterson. Because he was such a nice guy. Frankly, because he was such a strong Christian, for many people. I can't tell you how many times I got into an argument about college basketball that ended up as a debate about Christianity during those last two or three weeks of the 2005 season. Peterson had Fulmer's support. He had Summitt's support. Everybody seemed to like him. "Give him one more year," they said.

One more year? Are you crazy?! How can you bring back all of those players, and be worse? How can you not even be competitive on many nights? And then, how can you lose Brandon Crump and Scooter McFadgon and expect to be better the next year?

And remember, when we were having these conversations, nobody knew who Bruce Pearl was. Wisconsin-Milwaukee was just trying to win the Horizon League - they hadn't beaten Boston College and Alabama and made it to the Sweet 16 yet. Pearl hadn't been charming us at the press conference table.

Buzz Peterson was, and is, a great human being, and he is a strong Christian. And that's obviously more important than anything to do with basketball. But you can't excuse the on court performance with anything - in sports, what counts is wins and losses. And Buzz Peterson - snakebitten as he was those first two years - just didn't have it. Not in Knoxville, anyway. It wasn't even a remotely difficult situation or choice, for me. Buzz Peterson did not get the job done. He had to go. Period.

And of course, Bruce Pearl came riding in on his horse, and saved the day. And I wish Buzz Peterson the absolute best at Coastal Carolina and everywhere else he goes, and I think he'll ultimately be more successful than not.

But two years later, as we talk about retaining Doc Rivers...no! Are you crazy? If you have to go anywhere other than the on court performance first - if he's such a nice guy, or whatever, you can read all that in Simmons' piece - no! Doc Rivers has not gotten the job done. He has to go. Period.

It's funny what makes people want to fire coaches who are doing tremendous jobs, but it's also fascinating what makes people want them to stay when they've clearly not gotten it done. This whole conversation - whether it's the fact that the coach is a nice guy who plays well with the media, or the fact that the coach is a strong Christian and everybody likes him - is fascinating to me. As a pastor, and as a person, I want people involved with the teams I love to be nice people and strong Christians. Sure. That's great. But that's not the defining line in what makes a good coach. Not even close.

When they were talking about Bob Knight potentially coming to Knoxville, and media types like Jimmy Hyams were going ballistic about even the idea of it, you could see elements of what's probably going on in Boston now. And at the time - because Bob Knight isn't a nice guy - I still remember saying, "what do you want? Do you want to win, or do you want a nice guy?" And I'm thankful they didn't court Bob Knight, and we're all in love with Bruce Pearl. It didn't have to be Knight, it could've been anybody. And no, I don't condone everything that Knight or other coaches have done.

Coach Fulmer and Coach Pearl are both men of faith, and have no problem telling you so. And I like that. And I believe it helps them, I truly do. But both of them will also tell you that faith won't save their jobs, nor should it. Neither will being a nice person or playing nice with the media. And in a way, Buzz Peterson is the alter-ego of Jerry Green. Because Jerry Green won. And his problem wasn't at all a matter of faith - but he didn't do the things off the court that were necessary. There is more to these jobs than just wins and losses. But the one can't save you from futility in the other. Jerry Green isn't coaching in Knoxville anymore because his off the court issues and personality weren't working out, despite an unprecedented won-loss record. Buzz Peterson isn't coaching in Knoxville anymore because his wins and losses didn't add up, despite his off the court issues and personality. Four straight 20 win seasons couldn't save Jerry Green. Being a nice guy couldn't save Buzz Peterson. And in both cases - especially in hindsight, which is both easy and helpful - they shouldn't have.

So what's going to save Doc Rivers? Because nothing should.

Either way, the Celtics march on...to May 22 and a bunch of ping pong balls, and the Celtic faithful holding their breath and saying their prayers. And I swear, if ML Carr shows up on lottery night, he'd better watch for snipers.

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