Tennessee Basketball has come such a long way under Bruce Pearl - which we'll get to - that there may even be some out there who read this headline and said "...who?"
Before BruceBall came on the scene to recreate the interest that Buzz Peterson lost, a man came from Oregon and spent four years on the bench at Tennessee, taking the program to unprecendented heights, and then crashing and burning in quicker and more spectacular fashion than any coach before him.
The story of Jerry Green in Knoxville really begins with Kevin O'Neill, whose story really begins with Wade Houston. Houston came as an assistant from Louisville in 1989 to follow the departed Don DeVoe, and brought his son Allan with him. While Allan was in uniform, the Vols were game. When Allan left, the Vols went 5-22 in 1994, and Wade was shown the door.
Kevin O'Neill took the baton for the next three years with interest in the program at an all-time low. The current Southern Cal coach, whom the Vols will face in two weeks, really started the process that Pearl resurrected and took full advantage of a decade later. He took Tennessee to the NIT in his second season, but at the end of his third, O'Neill left for Northwestern, most notably for differences with athletic director Doug Dickey and being at a place where football was king.
Jerry Green was not Tennessee's first choice to replace O'Neill, but ended up with the job. He also ended up with three years worth of Kevin O'Neill recruiting talent in the cupboard...and that, as it turned out, made all the difference.
Green got the Vols to the NCAA Tournament after a nine year absence for his opening act, then took them back there before we get to this decade. In the 1999-2000 season, Green led the Vols to their most successful season ever (pre-Pearl): 26-7, a second straight SEC East Championship, and a four-way share of the SEC regular season conference crown.
The 99-00 Vols featured Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, CJ Black, and Isiah Victor - all O'Neill recruits - in the starting lineup. Green, to his credit, did land a stellar freshman class in this season, which included Ron Slay and Jon Higgins. This Tennessee team went 12-4 in the SEC, beat Kentucky in Knoxville for the second straight season, and played a pair of overtime thrillers with the Florida team that would play in the National Championship game, winning in double overtime in Gainesville and again in overtime in Knoxville.
Green took the Vols to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, this time as a 4 seed (after another infamous flameout in the SEC Tournament). The Vols survived Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round, and then pulled away from defending National Champion UConn in the second round, 65-51. This gave the Vols their first ever appearance in the Sweet 16.
What's more, a bracket filled with upsets knocked the 1, 2, and 3 seeds out of the Vols' region in the first two rounds, meaning Tennessee went to the Sweet 16 as the highest remaining seed in the region. Brand new to the Sweet 16, we were thinking Final Four, and with good reason.
The Vols faced a rebuilding North Carolina squad as an 8 seed, and had a nine point lead with under ten minutes to play...and then started jacking threes for no reason. And Carolina kept rebounding and scoring...and in a matter of minutes, UNC had the lead. And the Vols kept jacking threes and taking bad shots. And eventually, Carolina won, 74-69...and just like that, Tennessee's dream season was over.
The loss was frustrating, but still, you couldn't be that upset about an SEC Championship and our first trip to the Sweet 16. What's more, the Vols lost only CJ Black to graduation, finished 11th in the final AP poll and then were 9th in the 2000-2001 preseason poll. We expected something even better the following year.
And boy, did it look that way at the start.
The Vols ripped off a 16-1 start to the 00-01 season, rebounding from their lone loss to #14 Virginia by blowing out #12 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. That included a 3-0 SEC start, which left Tennessee ranked #4 in the second week of January 2001. And again, we were thinking Final Four, and again with good reason.
The 18th game of the season sent the Vols to Rupp Arena, where proud teams go to be humbled. A ten point loss there should have been a wake up call, but the Vols rebounded to beat Mississippi State, and we shrugged it off. The Vols went to Athens and lost a double overtime game, then went to Gainesville to play the #13 Gators and got drilled.
16-1 had become 17-4, but still, no worries. The Vols beat Vanderbilt by 22 points in Knoxville to get to 18-4, 5-3 SEC, still ranked 10th and still very much in every championship conversation.
But back on the road, Tennessee again fell in overtime, this time to Arkansas. Then, the Vols were lifeless in Oxford, getting blown out 87-71. Now the Vols were 18-6, 5-5 in the SEC, and down to 15th in the poll.
A three game homestand was believed to fix everything, as the Vols were undefeated at home on the year. The opponents - #22 Kentucky, #11 Florida, and the Georgia team that had beaten UT in double OT - should've taken care of the motivational factor. We knew we were talented, we were just in a funk. Surely, this team would pull it together when it mattered most.
Instead, the Vols simply quit playing defense.
On Valentine's Day, Kentucky built a h-u-g-e first half lead and held off a Vol rally, scoring 103 points along the way in an eight point win. Four days later, Florida did the exact same thing, building a huge lead and then holding off a rally to win 88-82. Around this time, Ron Slay dropped a quote about the Vols just screwing around for the first thirty minutes of games, until they looked at the scoreboard and realized "(Fulmerized), we're losing."
Surely lowly Georgia would stop the bleeding. But for the third straight home game, the same agonizing formula played out: no defense, no comeback, Dawgs win 88-76. At this point, the Vols had lost five straight and seven of eight, and were 5-8 in the SEC.
I was a student at UT during these final two years of Green's tenure, and every night in the student section you'd be surrounded by a group of underclassmen who didn't know anything about Wade Houston going 5-22 just a few years earlier. To these students, and the other new fans, Tennessee had always been good at basketball. So when the Vols struggled and played lazy, nonexistent defense with seemingly no instruction to do otherwise from the bench, the fans got very frustrated and very vocal. The university paid for orange t-shirts for all the students for the three game home stretch that said "NOT IN OUR HOUSE!", in reference to the aforementioned undefeated streak at home. And I think mine is still in a trash can somewhere in Thompson-Boling.
How did Jerry Green respond to all this newfound criticism and poor play from his team? He went on the radio and said if Tennessee fans didn't like it, they could go to K-Mart instead.
The Vols pulled out their final three games of the regular season, including an improbable overtime win at South Carolina, to get to 8-8 in the SEC, 21-9 on the year. The Vols won one game in the SEC Tournament before getting undressed by Ole Miss again in the second round. Still, the full body of work was strong enough from the first half of the season to get the Vols in the dance, this time as an 8 seed. Tennessee would face UNC-Charlotte in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And it was like watching a bad movie you'd seen a dozen times before: the Vols got outworked, outhustled, and outplayed by a team with inferior talent, and lost 70-63.
To this date, these two teams under Jerry Green remain among the most talented in program history. Which is why it was so maddening to watch them play so poorly and with such little heart. To this date, it's why a lot of Tennessee fans don't like Tony Harris or Jerry Green, despite their role in taking the program to an unprecendented level. What we were seeing on the floor was reflected on the bench, and Green appeared powerless to stop the slide - what's more, it didn't look like he was even doing anything about it. Those in and out of the program pointed all too often to the fact that Green had won with O'Neill's players. And the disconnect between the head coach and the rest of the Tennessee family became greater every day...until eventually, Green pulled the famous "resigned under pressure" card, and despite four consecutive 20 win seasons for the first time in the history of Tennessee Basketball, the Jerry Green era was over.
The Vols caught lots of bad publicity in the national media for Green's departure, but for those in Knoxville who watched this rise and fall take place, there were few tears shed for Jerry Green. Bruce Pearl's meteoric rise has further removed the possibility that we might give Green more credit in hindsight. The performance of the 2000-01 basketball team joins that of the 2005 football team as the best (worst?) example of wasted talent on campus this decade.
In March of 2000, Green led the Vols to their greatest success ever at the time. In January of 2001, he looked poised to do the same again. And in March of 2001, he was unemployed...and never worked as a head coach again.