How A Football Fanbase Watches Basketball

Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE

Maybe there's a reason schools tend to be good at only one of them.

In the midst of conversation about the current season and future employment of our basketball coach, consider the extra burden of holding that position at the University of Tennessee. Not only are you coaching in the shadow of Pat Summitt - which can and should be far more blessing than curse - but you coach in the shadow of Neyland Stadium.

Plenty of coaches have made good money and found reasonable success at football-first institutions. But I wonder how many of them have found themselves dealing with extra pressure after every loss because the vast majority of their fans were born and raised on fall Saturdays?

One of the most important strengths of college football - the demand for perfection - often bleeds into college basketball during the regular season. It happens to everybody - if you're not Wichita State you have at least two losses right now and 60% of the current Top 25 has at least five - but I often wonder if basketball-first fanbases handle it much better than we do. Programs like Kentucky and Duke often shake off the early season loss more quickly, chalking it up to the experience they know will ultimately show itself. Programs like Tennessee often get far more mileage out of losses because that's how we were taught to operate during football season, when all senses are heightened on our campuses.

Both sports have their benchmarks. 68 teams make the NCAA Tournament, 70 schools make a bowl game. With more automatic bids in March we shouldn't equate just making the tournament with a 6-6 season in football. But when you look back through history, you find very few schools who have excelled at both. On the Top 20 all-time tournament and bowl appearance lists, only four schools appear on both (UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas, Arkansas). It's even less diverse at the top: 11 different schools won a BCS National Championship, and only one of them (Florida) won the NCAA Tournament during the same span. Of the 10 different schools to win a title in basketball during the same span, more than half are currently or traditionally terrible in football (Kentucky, UConn, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, Kansas).

Maybe it's impossible to be good at both over a long period of time; no one's really pulled it off yet outside of the case Florida is making right now, and even it has its holes. But maybe there are better or at least different ways for us to look at things as football-first fans.

For instance, Cuonzo Martin's current winning percentage at Tennessee is .595, going 19-15, 20-13, and now currently 17-11. In football language, that's in the neighborhood of a 7-6 campaign in year one and 8-5 in year two. But because everything in basketball is ultimately about postseason play, Martin is also being judged on a credit/no credit scale. Bruce Pearl's Elite Eight team would've only been the equivalent of a 9-3 regular season in college football, but the regular season just becomes gravy when you win three games in March. Cuonzo's six game win streak at the end of last year's regular season included three of the most memorable regular season games of the last decade - 30 points over Kentucky, four overtimes over Texas A&M, and a home win over Top 10 Florida - but they all fall in the no credit category when you don't make the dance. In football the losses count more, but the wins also get remembered far longer.

Patience also looks a little different in each sport. In football programs tend to rise and fall on the strength of head coaches and sometimes quarterbacks. In most cases you get a good run of several years with each, even if coach is on his way up. In basketball non-elite programs tend to rise and fall on the strength of one good recruiting class and/or one good run of games in March that redefines the whole conversation.

Consider the high points for each SEC Basketball school in the last 20 years:

  • Alabama: Ranked #1 in 2002, Elite Eight 2004
  • Arkansas: 1994 National Champions, Final Four 1995
  • Auburn: 1999 SEC Champions, Sweet 16
  • Florida: Final Four 2000, 2006 & 2007 National Champions, Elite Eight 2011-13, Current #1
  • Georgia: 2008 SEC Tournament Champions
  • Kentucky: is Kentucky
  • LSU: 2006 Final Four, SEC Champions 2000, 2006, 2009
  • Ole Miss: 2001 Sweet 16, 2013 SEC Tournament Champions
  • Mississippi State: 1996 Final Four, SEC Champions 2004
  • Missouri: Elite Eight 1994, 2002, 2009
  • South Carolina: SEC Champions 1997
  • Tennessee: SEC Champions 2000 & 2008, Ranked #1 in 2008, Sweet 16 2000, 2007, 2008, Elite Eight 2010
  • Texas A&M: Sweet 16 2007
  • Vanderbilt: Sweet 16 2004 & 2007, 2012 SEC Tournament Champions
10 of the 14 schools in a much-maligned basketball conference have achieved at least a conference title or an Elite Eight bid in the last 20 years. That list doesn't include Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt, who has done a good job keeping his job with six NCAA Tournament appearances in eleven years but has never been as successful in the regular season or the NCAA Tournament as the vast majority of the league. You'll have to excuse me if I don't consider Stallings a leading expert in how much success a fanbase should expect from its head coach.

Still, of this list only Georgia, Ole Miss, and newcomer Texas A&M have been devoid of at least one shining moment in the last twenty years. The difference here is, look how few and far between those moments are for most of the league.

Alabama had three or four years of really good basketball under Mark Gottfried. Arkansas won a National Championship twenty years ago and almost got a second, but hasn't been anywhere close since. South Carolina had one really good team that lost to a 15 seed in the first round. Both of John Brady's SEC Championship teams at LSU - built on the strength of NBA talent - were immediately followed by teams that didn't even make the NIT the very next year.

If you're not Kentucky, newcomer Missouri, or Florida under Billy Donovan, you haven't been able to put together any significant success with even remote consistency in this league. Coaches like Gottfried, Rick Stansbury, and now Kevin Stallings may be able to keep their jobs for a long time, but consistent breakthroughs are incredibly rare.

So this too goes on the long list of reasons why what Bruce Pearl did here was so incredible, because he didn't just ride the strength of one recruiting class and, as it turns out, coached only two NBA players for one season each, neither of whom played on his three Sweet 16 teams. Pearl made consistent winning - an expectation in SEC Football and an illusion in SEC Basketball - a reality in Knoxville.

And so here's Cuonzo, 17-11 in year three and once more on the bubble, being met with the short leash of a football fanbase who are treating him about the same way we'd treat a coach who'd gone 7-6, 8-5, and had now lost just enough games in year three to be riding the fence, with many in orange waiting for him to fall off.

Are we being unfair? Cuonzo's .595 number puts him right alongside guys like Mark Gottfried (.616), Anthony Grant (.590), Cliff Ellis (.598), John Brady (.580), and Kevin Stallings (.610). Grant is in his fifth year at Alabama. The other guys on that list all got at least ten years at their places of business. And there are others - most notably Rick Stansbury (.641) and Andy Kennedy (.634) who have won more in the regular season, but have been unable to maintain that success come tournament time. But Stansbury got 14 years in Starkville, and this is currently year eight for Kennedy in Oxford.

Other schools in this football-mad conference, including strong football leaders like Alabama and LSU, have shown patience with coaches for more than three years. But again, Pearl makes the difference. Tennessee was delivering March moments with football-like consistency under Pearl's watch. With Cuonzo, he's winning just enough regular season games to barely miss the chance to make any March moments.

We could learn to take losses a little lighter during basketball season. We could note the ebb and flow of most of the SEC on the backs of one or two great recruits and the right bounces in March. But when football teaches you to win, and then you get a six year taste of it in basketball? It's really hard to go back to patience. And it's really hard for impatience to even seem unfair.

What do you think? How has Tennessee Football impacted the way you watch Tennessee Basketball? And do these conclusions leave us feeling like we're giving Cuonzo Martin a fair shake?

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