During Tuesday night's brief panic over a single story claiming mutual interest between Cuonzo Martin and Illinois, an interesting topic played out in our comments: is Illinois really a better basketball job than Tennessee?
My first impression was that, while Tennessee is clearly the better job for 2012-13, Illinois is still the better program long-term. But several made the good point that, if the Vols continue to ascend as Cuonzo Martin continues the journey Bruce Pearl started, Tennessee could become the better program down the road. Tennessee Basketball hasn't hit its ceiling and we've still got plenty of room to grow.
But in the present moment, exactly where does Tennessee stand among college basketball programs nationally?
Bruce Pearl always spoke of this as a Top 20 job nationally, especially at the end of his tenure. That's a status he helped create, and we saw it pay off last year: those who were worried that Tennessee would fall behind others with job openings last year, including Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Missouri, NC State, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M were pleasantly surprised to find Tennessee got the guy they wanted, and after one year only Missouri had a stronger regular season, and only NC State had a stronger postseason. I was among the many who overreacted to Pearl's departure and didn't fully appreciate the growth of the program and its ability to stay in the national conversation.
Since Pearl's arrival, Tennessee has been in the top five nationally in attendance seven years in a row. And the Vols have made three Sweet Sixteens since 2007 - consider that only 52 programs have made the Sweet 16 at all in the last six years, and only four from the SEC. No team has made the Sweet Sixteen in each of the last six years, only Kansas and North Carolina have made it five times, and only Ohio State, Michigan State, and Xavier have made it four out of six. This current run ties the Vols with Florida, Butler, Memphis, Louisville, Wisconsin, Duke, Syracuse, and Kentucky with three Sweet Sixteens in six years...pretty good company, if you ask me.
So we're obviously biased and I'm sure that'll come into play here, but where do the Vols rank in terms of national jobs right now? After the jump, we'll look at several different tiers and attempt to place the Vols in one of them. Should fans of other teams stumble across this, I'm sure you'll be happy to tell us why we're wrong. And in some cases you'll be right, and in some cases Washington will still be a sub-lateral move in football.
Let's take a look...
The Trifecta: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina
No debate here: the three most consistently powerful basketball schools in the country. Duke has made eleven Final Fours since 1986, winning four titles. Carolina has made nine Final Fours since 1991, winning three titles. And Kentucky has made five Final Fours since 1993, winning twice. UK and UNC are the overwhelming favorites to be there again this year. Where Kentucky is slightly behind in recent Final Four appearances, they make up the difference with obsessive fan support, the perfect complement to the passion and excellence of SEC Football. You only leave these jobs for the NBA, and Rick Pitino will tell you that's a bad idea.
The Once and Future Kings: Indiana, UCLA
IU hasn't made a Final Four since 2002 and is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since then, but that doesn't keep them too far away from the top of a list of the best college basketball jobs. Like Kentucky, it's a basketball obsessed state and the primary athletic program at its university by light years. UCLA may be in trouble right now, but don't forget that this team made three straight Final Fours from 2006-08. The team with the most championships in NCAA history and one of the best locations will always be a top destination job in this sport.
The Modern Powers: Kansas, Michigan State, UConn
UConn doesn't get there quite as often, but the Huskies have made four Final Fours since 1999 and won three of them. Kansas has made seven Final Fours since 1986, winning in 1988 and 2008. Michigan State had Magic Johnson's championship team in 1979, and has made six Final Fours since 1999, winning it all in 2000. These three programs don't pack quite the same prestige as Duke, UK, and UNC, but you know they're going to be great almost every single year.
That's eight schools that are not up for debate - all eight of these programs are clearly better jobs than Tennessee.
From here, there's room for conversation on a number of schools - would Tennessee be considered a better job than any of these (tiers are not ranked in any real order):
We Play Basketball Too!: Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas
Though of this group only Florida has won a title in the last twenty years (Michigan won in 1989, Ohio State in 1960, Texas never), these are teams that should always be good because of location and the power of their athletic departments. Of this group, Tennessee has better facilities and better fan support than any of them by far. But unless NCAA sanctions get in the way, this group tends to rise above the trend of being good based on the strength of a couple great recruiting classes, then coming back down to earth. Texas has made three Elite Eights since 2003, Ohio State two Final Fours since 1999, and the Gators have made five Elite Eights under Billy Donovan and are still alive for a sixth. Michigan hasn't gone past the Sweet Sixteen since 1994, though they had a good team this year and were upset by Ohio in the first round. But the Fab Five still give them extra name recognition and a chance for a higher ceiling than what Tennessee currently enjoys. This is a tier Tennessee could find themselves very comfortable in if Cuonzo can continue our success consistently.
Hey, Remember Us?: Arizona, Maryland
Zona made the Final Four in 1994, won it in 1997, and was there again in 2001. Maryland was also a Duke victim in the 2001 Final Four, then won it all in 2002. Arizona made the Elite Eight in 2003, 2005, and 2011. But Maryland hasn't been out of the Sweet 16 since 2003. Both missed the tournament this year, more evidence that they are now far removed from the Kansas/MSU/UConn group of modern powers. Both still carry far more name recognition than Tennessee, but since 2005 Tennessee is more successful than either. And the Vols can still carry the banner of facilities and fan support over almost anyone in this argument. Is Tennessee a better job than these two schools?
The SEC of Basketball: Georgetown, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova
With UConn already accounted for, how many other Big East jobs are better than Tennessee? They've all got different strengths: Syracuse can top Tennessee in average attendance, and though they've only made two Elite Eights since 1996 (including the 2003 title with Carmelo Anthony), they're always around the second weekend with eight Sweet Sixteen appearances in that same span. Georgetown has the history with three Final Fours in the 1980s and a return in 2007. Pittsburgh has five Sweet Sixteens since 2002 but only one Elite Eight in 2009, and hasn't been to the Final Four since 1941. Villanova has four Sweet Sixteens since 2005 and a Final Four in 2009, plus the draw of Philadelphia. And Louisville is the jack of all trades: great new arena, strong attendance, three Elite Eights since 2005. Louisville, for instance, is a better job than Tennessee because there is nothing we do better than them. And all of these teams have what UT never will: basketball is the heart and soul of their fanbase and their athletic department.
The Big City Draw: Georgia Tech, Illinois, Notre Dame, St. John's
Notre Dame could go in a couple of these tiers, but I put them here because they've been far less successful than the other football and Big East schools with just one Sweet Sixteen this century (2003). They join Illinois with a Chicago draw - the Illini made four Sweet Sixteens from 2001-05 and lost in the title game in the final year of that run, but haven't been past the second round since. Georgia Tech is an example of what went right for us this time last year, when I would've incorrectly said that Tennessee was all Pearl and Georgia Tech was a much better job - Brian Gregory went 11-20 (4-12) in year one, and GT hasn't turned its Atlanta location into success since 2004. And St. John's hasn't been nationally relevant since the 90s, but playing in Madison Square Garden will always get you on this list somewhere. Is Tennessee a better job than any of these?
Others Considered: Cincinnati, Memphis, Purdue, West Virginia, Wisconsin
And feel free to add your own to this list. Cincinnati has a recruiting advantage and plays in the Big East, but their on court record is far worse than UT's since 2000. It's always fun to get into this debate with our friends in the western part of the state - Memphis is joining a Big East that's losing West Virginia, Syracuse and Pittsburgh and could still lose others to the ACC in future expansion, but it'll still be a better test of how good their program truly is outside the friendly confines of Conference USA. I think it's more true now than ever that Tennessee is the better job. Purdue is especially dangerous where Cuonzo Martin is concerned, and though it plays second fiddle in its own state they have made three Sweet Sixteens since 2000. West Virginia is even better, with four Sweet Sixteens and a Final Four since 2005, but they're headed to the Big 12 and that won't help their cause. And Wisconsin is quietly always around, six Sweet Sixteens since 2000. All of these schools lack the facilities, fan support, and athletic department power that Tennessee has.
And remember: the Vols have made four Sweet Sixteens since 2000, three since 2007. That's greater consistency than most programs, including a few on this list. And the point remains that Tennessee is not only the second biggest power in the SEC traditionally, but if Cuonzo keeps this progress up we could establish ourselves as the second biggest power in the SEC on an annual basis, especially if Billy Donovan continues to struggle against us. Unlike the 1980s-90s, the basketball program has the support of the athletic department and Thompson-Boling Arena is now a spectacular facility. And unlike Jerry Green's brief run of success, Bruce Pearl built real fan support that Cuonzo Martin sustained this season.
Basketball will always be second fiddle in Knoxville, something that will probably keep Tennessee from ever cracking that top eight group. However, it also keeps unfair amounts of pressure from being put on the head coach. But beyond that issue, this has become a great job in a place where you can truly win consistently, with all the fan and financial support that comes along with that. And when you take both the short view - look not only at our success under Pearl, but the way Cuonzo handled what should've been a throwaway first year - and the long view of the team next year and the consistency we'll have built if they're successful, this is a great, great basketball job.
So, where would the Vols rank?
After the top eight, there are still several schools among these other tiers that I think are better jobs than UT...but not all of them. Though it's not a perfect fit, I would put the Vols in that football tier - all of the other schools there have a greater recruiting advantage, but Tennessee has been consistently better than Florida head-to-head and consistently better than the others overall during the last seven years. I think under Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee has a real chance to be a Top 15 program nationally, and give itself a real chance to take the next step, make the Final Four, and compete for championships. But it's consistency that's the mark of a truly great program - Pearl raised the bar here from "making the tournament is a success!" to expecting to be playing on the second weekend of the tournament every year. With our fan support and facilities, what Pearl built and what's coming back next year, and everything we've seen from Cuozno Martin, I think the Vols can continue to move forward in every way.