Solving the Vols
Peterson takes over reins at troubled Tennessee
By Mark Schlabach, Special to CNNSI.com
There's not as much buzz surrounding the Tennessee men's basketball team this year, but the new Buzz sitting at the end of the bench could decide the Volunteers' postseason fate.
New Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson, who last March guided Tulsa to the NIT championship in his only season there, takes over for Jerry Green, who was fired after four straight seasons with at least 20 wins and an NCAA tournament appearance.
Peterson, 38, inherits a program that earned two dubious reputations last season -- underachievers and thugs. After bolting to a 16-1 start, Tennessee lost 10 of its last 16 games, including early-round exits in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Considered a possible Final Four entrant in the preseason, the Volunteers were perhaps the nation's most underachieving squad.
Gone from that team are three starters -- point guard Tony Harris, center Charles Hathaway and forward Isiah Victor. Without them, the Vols this season are picked to finish third in the SEC East, behind top-five programs Florida and Kentucky. To get back to the NCAAs, Peterson knows he must improve his team's chemistry and work ethic.
"You're taking over a job where for four straight years Jerry Green won 20 games and went to the NCAA tournament and he's still let go," Peterson said. "You know something is going on behind the doors. What is it? Something was going on. This was too good of a job for me to get."
Peterson found out what was going on this summer. Guards Terrence Woods and Harris Walker were dismissed from the team for multiple infractions of team rules, and budding forward Marcus Haislip was declared academically ineligible for the first nine games.
"Coach Green's coaching style didn't fit a lot of our players," said Vols forward Vincent Yarbrough. "He was more passive and some of our players needed more direction. Really, we were tired of being known as the 'UT thugs.' We were really tired of hearing that rap. We didn't feel that way about ourselves."
Said junior guard Jon Higgins: "You could say we needed more discipline."
Peterson, a teammate of Michael Jordan's at North Carolina, has taken a novel approach to discipline. Instead of making his players run when they stray from his rules, he makes them read -- Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and other classics.
"The books with the really fine print," he says.
"I've seen the books in his office," Higgins said. "I haven't been forced to read them yet. I'm trying to stay away from that for as long as possible."
Peterson's attempts to turn underachievers into overachievers has hit some bumps. High-energy forward Ron Slay, the team's second-leading scorer last year, could miss the first month of the season with a stress fracture in his foot. Forward Andy Ikeakor and newcomer Brandon Crump also are hurt. The Vols had only seven scholarship players available for their first exhibition game.
"It feels like somebody stole a few golf clubs out of my bag," Peterson said.
Tennessee fans are just hoping he shoots better than par this season.
Mark Schlabach covers the SEC for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His "This Week in the SEC" column will appear weekly during the season.