Rocky Top, not just the unofficial fight song of the Tennessee Volunteers, but a very fitting way to describe the past few seasons of Tennessee basketball under third year head coach Cuonzo Martin.
After returning home from a closely contested defeat on Saturday at the hands of Wichita State, most thought the Vols would surely bounce back at home against NC State. However, only those who have actually witnessed this team over the past three seasons can fully understand and accept that you never know what you’re going to get out of this bunch anymore.
Tennessee dropped their fourth game of the season to NC State after failing to recover from a 17-point halftime deficit. Although the Wolfpack are a respective 8-2 through their first 10 games, one of their two losses came at home in overtime to North Carolina Central. Not exactly the most respective of losses a tourney hopeful team can have in their quest for an invitation to the dance.
One large reason for the Vols’ shortcomings has been their reliance on Jordan McRae. While McRae has continued to consistently put 20-plus points on the board night in and night out, they rest of the team can’t expect the senior guard’s performance to be enough to lead them to victory each night.
While the players will consistently tell you the dismal performance is on them, a ‘rocky’ fan base is looking for the quick fix, and are determined it starts at, you guessed it, the ‘top.’
Martin stepped into a situation at Tennessee where his predecessor, who was fired over fear of what damages could be placed upon the basketball program if retained, took the program to heights never before seen. Bruce Pearl became an icon to Vol fans nationwide, leading the team to their first No. 1 ranking, their first elite eight appearance, and some monumental victories to take what was a broken program and place them in the national spotlight.
During a time where football, every Vol fan’s first love, was beginning to plummet with coaching change after coaching change, Pearl gave Tennessee fans something else they could look forward to each year, and essentially spoiled an entire fan base that was so used to seeing championships on the grid iron, and mediocrity on the hard wood.
So it’s easy to see why going from achieving all of these milestones, to not being able to close out the deal against teams that may not even be in the tournament conversation come March such as UTEP is more than a little dissatisfying to Vol fans. It also doesn’t help that the basketball program is in a steady decline while the football program is still on the ground floor either.
You can see it all around, and as expected the fans want a change at the coaching position. They want someone brought in to help restore the good name of their beloved Volunteers, but maybe they should take a look back to not long ago at the last time there was an overwhelming outcry for change.
In 2008 the call came for Hall of Fame football coach Phillip Fulmer to be canned. Fans were sure removing him from the helm and replacing him with a fresh face would help restore order in the football program. Now, five years later, the pieces are still trying to be re-gathered and put back into place after giving a coach the boot just one season removed from winning his team’s division in the conference.
In those five years the Vols are now on their third coach, and still paying buyout clauses for the mistakes of hires they’ve made.
Although it’s blatantly clear something must change for the Vols basketball program, and soon, jumping back into the help wanted pool may not be their best option at this moment, especially without having a good feel on a potential candidate out there to begin with.
Also, with buyouts still to be paid in all areas of the athletic department, it may be in Tennessee’s best interest to let Martin’s contract run its course, and then re-evaluate the program and make the decision to keep him on if things improve, or send him on his way without owing him a dime and finding a new leader.
It’s worth noting that the less a program has to spend on a buyout, is more they can spend on a replacement, thus the higher chance of a ‘big catch’ so to speak.
The season is still young for the Vols. Although opportunities are running out to build their resume for the big dance, there is still time to right the ship and turn things around.
Lately the holiday season in Tennessee has been known for coaching searches, so maybe this once it should be about getting behind and supporting their team which obviously needs some kind of boost. Afterall, it is the holidays…
Have a happy holiday season everyone.