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To Be Is Not To Beat: A Disturbing Trend in Tennessee Sports

Normally, you'd see some kind of post-game stream-of-consciousness writeup shortly after a Tennessee game.  Tonight is slightly different for two reason.  First, both Joel and Will are out of pocket at the moment an unable to provide their postgame.  That leaves me (and I'm horribly naive at basketball to be handling a writeup), and I've been in and out on errands throughout the day.

Second, what kind of a writeup would be appropriate?  I could always add to the stock list of critiques of the gameplay - where things when wrong, who's hot, who's cold, what needs to change, chances at the NCAA tournament, etc.  The problem is that everybody knows all of that information already.  Writing it here would only codify the common knowledge, and I'm not really one for writing like that.

Instead, I think it makes more sense to use that game as a starting point into a discussion about the major UT sports (football, and women's and men's basketball).  All three sports are showing (or have shown) tendencies to rest on accomplishments already achieved - and often on accomplishments achieved by those who came before them.  Some might refer to it as living in the past, but that becomes a silly phrase to use when "the past" was as recent as a year ago.

First, I transcribed Pearl's postgame interview with Bob Kessling.  Bob was kind enough to hand Bruce the stock analysis questions and give Bruce the opportunity to give the stock answers in return.  Instead, Bruce gave a much deeper look into himself and into the team; in the process he gave all of us some brilliant insight as to how incredibly deep and talented teams can routinely lose to inferior squads.

In the transcription, Bob's questions are italicized and Bruce's responses are in blockquotes.  I've sterilized their speech ticks for readibility and added highlights for my own discussion to follow.

Coach, you can't be very happy right now.

No, Bob.  We certainly are embarrassed.  Very, very disappointed.  I want to apologize to all of our fans for the way our basketball team played.  I mean that sincerely.  And the way I coached.  I am truly sorry. 

My teams have always played hard and unselfishly, and tonight we played neither hard nor unselfishly.  Sometimes, we play with or without poise, that can happen; tonight we played with no poise.  We had no focus and no purpose to start the game.  We couldn't even start the game with a playcall.  Our point guards Bobby Maze and Josh Tabb did a terrific job defensively on Meeks, but helped me execute the offense very, very poorly.  And so, [I'm] extremely disappointed with our leadership.  Although Tyler Smith was 1 for 11 and didn't play well, I didn't think he quit.  But I did think a number of our players quit.  And I know these are all hard things to say:  embarrassment, quitting; but it's all about honoring the game.

I don't want our fans to be mad at them; that's my job.  But they should be disappointed.

We just see where we go from here.

Did Kentucky do anything defensively that changed things up?

No.  From the very first tip, I had said to Josh Tabb, "I want to run this play, whether we get it or don't, and on the first possession - whether it's a fast break or not - I want to run this play."  We got the tip, and Josh pushed it up the floor really fast, like we were running a fast break.  And the rest of the guys were like, "Gosh, I though we were running this play."  And then we never could get the play.

And the play was the same play that we ran to Tyler to get him a wide-open three-ball at the top of the key in the second half.  We missed it, but it was wide open.  I just knew that we were going to get a wide-open three-ball right off the bat, and we just didn't run that play.

The next time down, we didn't execute the next play.  [We] put the ball in one of our best passer's hands, J.P, and Wayne's got Patterson smashed down there in the post and he throws the ball out of bounds two feet away from him.  [He was] supposed to throw a little bounce pass in there.  And it just went downhill from there.

Second half:  Kentucky led by seven at halftime. You did cut it to four and were right back in the game.  It seemed like J.P. Prince picked up his fourth foul and the complexion changed after that, too, because Prince really had given you some energy on the boards.

"He did give us energy on the boards; he got some offensive rebounds, but: goaltendings and drama with the officials all the time; and I just expect a lot more from J.P.  He's had three or four games where he's been in deep, deep foul trouble, and much of it is self-inflicted."

The other thing about today that you've got to worry about is the three-point shooting - 4 of 24 from three-point range.  But it was hard to get the ball inside against these guys.

"It was.  Wayne was completely out of sorts, start to finish.  He's one of our best players.  When Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism go 5 for 33, you're not going to beat anybody."

These last four games are all very important, aren't they?

I'll just start with Mississippi State.  We have to win [against] Mississippi State to make the NCAA tournament.  Period.  Mississippi State's going to be a team that'll be fourth, or fifth, or sixth, kinda with us.  How many are they going to take?  Right now, they're in second place on that side - I don't know what the results of their game were today.  But they're going to come in here and be right there with us.

We have to win all four games to have a chance to win the conference championship.  Given what happened in here to day, and teams do build momentum into this time of the year, we're obviously going in the opposite direction.  Our confidence level is way, way down.  Bob, you asked me off the air if I've seen this coming, and I've seen this coming since September.  It's been an unbelievable struggle trying to get this team to play hard, to play unselfishly, and to play with poise.  A lot of new guys added in with guys who are not providing the kind of leadership.  Tyler, and Wayne, and J.P., Brian Williams, Josh Tabb - those five guys have got to provide better leadership for the newcomers.

On the bright side, I thought Scotty Hopson came in here and played very, very well; played with poise; showed some effectiveness shooting the three-ball; taking the ball to the basket.  I thought he played very, very well.

But it's hard for me not to be completely and totally embarrassed at our field goal percentage, at their field goal percentage, at our assist-to-turnover ratio.  It was a complete domination.  I think, in some ways, we were our own worst enemy.

I think Kentucky did a lot of really good things.  When you spot them that lead, and they get that kind of a lead, what beat us was Ramone Harris 1 for 1, Michael Porter 3 for 6, Perry Stevenson 3 for 4, Darius Miller ... Chris Lofton was here and Darius obviously showed up for his boy - 6 for 6.  And so those guys were combined whatever they are; those are the ones, in a tight game:  can they make those shots?  And when they're down?  That's not what those guys have done.

This is a great confidence booster for Kentucky.  If they can get some of those guys going, which they did, they're a pretty darn effective basketball team. 

How much do you put back on the team now?  To say, "Guys, listen, we put you in the right formations; we put you in the right plays, and it's up to you now, ...

Bob, I have completely called this team out for the first time publicly.  We've done a lot of these things in the locker room.  I'm embarrassed.  I apologize to our fans.  We did not represent Tennessee basketball at all.  It'll all be said and written about.  They are completely called out.  I've been a head coach for 18 years.  My teams have either finished first or second.  They have always played hard, and they have always played unselfishly.  I told them there's one common denominator and our fans understand what that is:  that's Bruce Pearl as your head coach.  This is the way my teams play; this is not the way this team is playing.  I have not done a good job with this basketball team and I apologize to our fans for it.  I'm not quitting.  We are going to battle this thing.  We are going to figure out a way to beat Mississippi State in spite of all of our challenges.  There is not one ounce of quit in me.  But there was quit out there on my basketball team and I apologize for that. 

Coach, thanks for your time.  We'll see you Wednesday night against Mississippi State.

Thanks, Bob.


In the above transcript, you could replace "Bob" with "Mickey", "Bruce Pearl" with "Pat Summitt", and the various player names from the mens' teams with the equivalents from the womens' teams, and nobody would doubt the authenticity of the transcript.  In Thursday's Lady Vols game - at Rupp Arena, agains the Lady Wildcats - we saw the exact same thing.

Oddly enough, we saw much the same in the football program last year as well.  Remember Wyoming?  How about Florida?  We've seen teams play far below their talent level before.  We know the outcome - they lose, and they lose badly.  It's quickly becoming a part of the Tennessee experience, and all three cases seem to have the same root cause:  living on the accomplishments of others.


Assuming it's not too soon to start being more honest about the final Fulmer years, we can note that the last few years contained two losing seasons and one season ('06) that perhaps ought to have been one, save for a bundle of game-winning squeakers.  The talent was there, especially if you believe Rivals and Scout, but the spark wasn't.  We talked about missing leaders like Al Wilson and John Henderson without really saying that the teams were wearing the glory of the previous years.  It was as if it were enough to "be Tennessee" and bask in the orange glow rather than to go out and make the orange glow.


In the last two years, the Lady Vols won the NCAA tournament.  Armed with an unbelievable roster of upperclassmen, those were teams that were feared.  Unless they decided to take a day off - a rare thing - they just didn't lose.  Other teams brought their best games against the Lady Vols only to find out how insufficient their best games were.  Yet this year, we have a freshman class as deep in talent as last year's seniors.  They're raw - they weren't Summittized over the last few years - but they're top-flight athletes and they are legion.  But the team gets worse and worse; they too bask in the orange glow and are happy to be "Lady Vols".  It's an honor they've inherited from previous years, but it's not an honor they've gone out and achieved for themselves.  Now, teams realize that these Lady Vols are beatable.  Fight hard enough, and this team will bend.  Keep fighting, and the team breaks.


Similar in occurrence to the Lady Vols, although not quite so dramatic in results, the Bruceballers reached the Sweet Sixteen in two consecutive years and briefly enjoyed the #1 ranking in the middle of the season after an absolutely dazzling performance against Memphis.  Like the Lady Vols, the men's squad received an influx of many terrific freshmen players.  Like the Lady Vols, the men's team also lost some of the key personnel who worked so hard to achieve the success that they ejoyed in the final two years.  Like the Lady Vols, the team started the season with a lot of promise but have continually regressed.  Again, the symptoms are the same and point to the same disease - complacency.  They're happy being "Bruce's team".  They're content to walk around campus as "the basketball team", enjoying the respect that the moniker earned in previous years.  And as other teams have begun to notice, they lost the fear of the Vols.  This team once gave Big East teams all they could handle, but now teams know that they can take the fight to the Vols and push them back.  Keep fighting, and beat the Vols.


In football, team complacency was a part of the reason that Fulmer was fired.  Unlike the '98 squad - who used the Nebraska loss as motivation to be the toughest team in the league - the recent teams relied on their talent and name to carry them.  Meanwhile, teams like Florida and Alabama were busy building themselves up to beat the Vols.  Now, UT is the one looking up to its rivals.

Pat Summitt has taken away the lockers from the Lady Vols. They have not yet earned the Lady Vols lockerroom; Pat is now making them prove they belong.  At some point, the Lady Vols have to commit to playing their best and their hardest at all times, never assuming that wearing an orange and blue jersey is enough to overcome even the weakest of opponents.

Bruce Pearl has his own fight on his hands.  He has now publicly expressed what had been the exclusive domain of team meetings.  All the cards are laid out on the table.  All opponents know that the Vols are prone to stray from the script and do not play cohesively.  The weaknesses are exposed.  The talent is there, but the Vols must now set themselves to play as a team with one focus and one purpose.  Every possession must seem as the most important possession of the game, and every contribution must be for the best of this year's team.

Meanwhile, like Bruce said, it's up to the coaches to deal with the complacency.  From the comfort of mom's basement Hodges library, it's easy to diagnose and criticize, but ultimately I (and every fan) have no control.  But we can recognize the problem and we can expect the teams to address the issues.

If they do, we can again be proud to call them all "Vols".