Here’s what I’d do if I were hiring Tennessee’s basketball coach
It seems incredible that Tennessee is now looking for its third basketball coach in four years. Which way does athletic director Dave Hart go now? How can this mess be fixed?
It’s going to take some vision, some guts, some basketball expertise to find a coach that is committed to a system, loves the recruiting game, interacts well with fans and does things the right way. But those kinds of coaches are out there, and I’m telling you that Tennessee is a coveted job.
No one’s asked my opinion, but here’s how things are going to go down:
- Gregg Marshall of Wichita State might have been an option, but probably not now. Remember that he interviewed twice for Tennessee before, and no one had the vision to give him a shot. The story was he didn’t interview well, came off brash, cocky. Hell, maybe brash and cocky is what this program has needed, as long as a coach does things the right way. To my knowledge, Marshall has never been under any NCAA investigation.
- But the Marshall ship may have sailed. Been hearing that Alabama has been waiting for his season to end so the school can back a Brinks truck up to Marshall’s doorstep. When I say Brinks truck, I’m talking big dough, plus a long-term contract. Texas, reportedly about to fire long-time coach Rick Barnes, is also another attractive job for Marshall.
- Marshall could also stay put, and the rumor is it wouldn’t take Bama bucks to keep him at Wichita State. Marshall’s a guy with a history of staying around. Another reason Tennessee might have wished it nabbed him when it had the chance.
- If Marshall doesn’t go to Alabama, it’s a good bet the school will turn to Murray State’s Steve Prohm, who graduated from Alabama and was a student assistant and manager for five years. He’s had great success at Murray—who hasn’t really, in that cradle of coaches—and he knows the lay of the land in Tuscaloosa and the SEC.
- Dayton wisely locked up Archie Miller for the next century. So another good young head coach has been taken off the table.
- All this brings us to two choices. I’ve been saying for the last two hires that Tennessee should have given Colorado coach Tad Boyle a call. He was an assistant at Tennessee under Jerry Green, and laugh all you want to about how the cornpone Green’s regime went down, that staff took the Vols to the NCAA Tournament four straight years. Yes, I know it was largely with Kevin O’Neill’s players, but they had to be coached.
Boyle is a class act who has won at Colorado (forget about this injury-plagued season) and before that at Northern Colorado. The problem is, he’s a Colorado native whose family is entrenched in that state now. But Tennessee has to give the man a call. He can coach, he does things the right way, he’s as decent a human being as you’ll meet, and he has innovative ways of doing things, such as liberal use of red-shirting.
- I’m going to close with a personal remembrance of a young Billy Donovan. He was in his first season as a head coach, at Marshall in 1994-95, all of 27 years old. The Thundering Herd was playing a game at Chattanooga, a team with a veteran coach (Mack McCarthy) that was a year away from a Sweet 16 run.
I don’t remember all the details, but Donovan went to a smaller lineup and the Herd took a lead late in the game. McCarthy countered with a smaller lineup of his own, then Donovan quickly subbed in his post player before McCarthy had time to react, got the ball into the paint and scored a couple of quick baskets that seal the win.
After that game, I remember talking with Donovan about that move and realizing that this was a future star.
Two national championships and a certain Hall of Fame nomination ahead, Donovan has become every bit the success I thought he would be.
All this brings me around to Will Wade. I’m not going to bore you with how I’ve gotten to know the second-year Chattanooga head coach. I’m just going to tell you that in Wade, I see the same qualities that I saw in Donovan. Hard worker. Great tactician. Tireless recruiter. Well connected. Does things the right way. Great with fans and boosters.
In two years at Chattanooga, he took a team that had lost 40 games the previous two seasons and won 18 in 2013-14 and Southern Conference coach of the year honors after the Mocs finished second in the league. He was 31. This season, at 32, he won 22 games, again finished second in the league—only an unreal second-half shooting performance by Wofford’s Karl Cochran prevented a sweep of the eventual league champion and thus first place—and recruited some pieces that will make his third team formidable.
Naysayers will say Wade’s too young, or that his teams were bumped out of the SoCon tournament way too early his first two years. I say he’s just getting warmed up, and that, like Donovan did when he was hired at Florida at 28—after only two seasons at Marshall—he can take great resources and build a perennial NCAA tournament team at an SEC school.
Tennessee shouldn’t take my word for it. Call Wade’s old boss at VCU, Shaka Smart. Ask him if he thinks Wade could handle Tennessee. He’ll answer with a resounding yes. Call another former boss, Tommy Amaker at Harvard, and ask him how Wade recruited the group that helped Amaker turn Harvard from an also-ran to an NCAA tournament team.
I’ve covered basketball my entire life, since the seventh grade, in fact. I’ve studied the game, gotten to know its coaches, players and characters. I know what it takes to be successful. And I’m telling you, Tennessee could do no wrong with either Tad Boyle or Will Wade. But if Boyle, because of family reasons, can’t make the move from his home state, Wade would be the man I’d call.
He’s not a second-rate option or a bargain-basement hire. He’s the future of coaching. And everybody who’s taken the time to get to know him and what he’s capable of not only agrees with that, but thinks he could pick up a beleaguered Tennessee program by the bootstraps and yank it back into, not just relevance, but a level of consistency unburdened by the NCAA snooping around every corner and trash can.
Will Wade would be a great hire for Tennessee. Trust me on that. Or don’t trust me. But then, just as when the powers that be rebuffed a young Gregg Marshall not once, but twice, watch as he takes another program to great heights, and regret that no one made the call.
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