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Rick Barnes Series Leftovers: The Odd Case of Jerry Green

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While researching the Rick Barnes series that I coauthored with Peter Bean, I encountered a number stories that we ended up not using in the series. Most of these will just drift quietly away, unused in the story editor. But there was one story that I found interesting and amusing to the point where I wanted to share it. It didn't really fit the series, so here it is, on its own.

Here is the strange story of Jerry Green at Tennessee.

In 2001, Jerry Green became the head coach at the University of Tennessee, after spending five decent but not exceptional seasons at Oregon. Jerry Green coached the University of Tennessee for four seasons, winning 71 percent of his games, and making the NCAA tournament each year. Then, for reasons that weren't initially clear to me, Green was fired in 2001. Perhaps the best explanation comes from this article at Rocky Top Talk.

I was a student at UT during these final two years of Green's tenure, and every night in the student section you'd be surrounded by a group of underclassmen who didn't know anything about Wade Houston going 5-22 just a few years earlier. To these students, and the other new fans, Tennessee had always been good at basketball. So when the Vols struggled and played lazy, nonexistent defense with seemingly no instruction to do otherwise from the bench, the fans got very frustrated and very vocal. The university paid for orange t-shirts for all the students for the three game home stretch that said "NOT IN OUR HOUSE!", in reference to the aforementioned undefeated streak at home. And I think mine is still in a trash can somewhere in Thompson-Boling.

How did Jerry Green respond to all this newfound criticism and poor play from his team? He went on the radio and said if Tennessee fans didn't like it, they could go to K-Mart instead.

-- Will Shelton (Rocky Top Talk, 2009)

My reading of this situation has to be done from a distance, as I didn't follow the Tennessee basketball program closely -- or at all, really. That Rocky Top Talk article, which is pretty well thought out, doesn't give much credit to Green. Green seemed to be viewed by the fan base as winning with Kevin O'Neill's players, which he was. Almost makes you wish for the days of Kevin O'Neill.

First, let's state the obvious; It is hilarious in retrospect to find a fan base pining for the days of Kevin O'Neill, the master of the 52-48 rock fight. Making this story even more odd: O'Neill didn't win many games at Tennessee. In his three seasons in Knoxville, O'Neill won 43 percent of his games. I know he inherited a poor team at Tennessee. But O'Neill has coached at a lot of places, and only had success at Marquette (you might remember him from Hoop Dreams). O'Neill's NCAA career winning percentage is 47 percent. (As an NBA head coach, his winning percentage is 40 percent.) If O'Neill's recruiting prowess is great enough that his recruits could win under the supposedly poor coaching of Green, you would think that O'Neill would have a few more wins on his own resume.

Again, Green won 71 percent of his games at Tennessee, made the tournament in each of his four seasons, and had one Sweet 16 trip. Buzz Peterson was hired to replace Green, and in the five years after Green was fired Tennessee's average winning percentage was 55 percent. Under Peterson, Tennessee never made the NCAA tournament.

As far as I can tell, Green never coached again. He became Director of Basketball Operations working for Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma, and later Indiana. Green's role partly involved compliance, and he claims Sampson's staff was aware of the relevant rules surrounding phone calls with recruits.

Green at Tennessee was undone by a sudden spike in fan expectation, which was in part perhaps due to overvaluing the actual talent of the players on the team. Green's team was perceived as being talented but poorly coached, and he didn't recruit the talent. So he must be a bad coach. QED.

But from where I sit, that sounds like garbage. Have a look at the 2000-2001 Tennessee Volunteers roster. Vincent Yarbrough was certainly a talent, highly regarded out of high school, and an eventual NBA first rounder. Ron Slay has done well enough in Europe. But beyond that, it wasn't exactly a murderers row -- it was a good roster of upperclassmen. One highly regarded recruit surrounded by a few fringe top 100 players is not a guarantee that a team will win, and win big.

This seems like a case where the fans in the stands let their qualitative analysis of the players, and their long-distance psychoanalysis of the coach-player relationship obscure the actual results on the court. Their view about the potential of their players, which was likely unrealistic given how most were viewed coming out of high school, led them down the dangerous path of unrealistic expectations. When the team didn't live up to that crazy expectation level, things spun out of control.

Part of me wonders why this doesn't happen more often, particularly at schools that are new to basketball success. It nearly happened to Billy Donovan at Florida, but he turned the story when he won two national titles. Ten years ago, Donovan was the underachiever who couldn't develop his players well enough to maximize their potential. Florida fans were quickly growing tired of it.

I am sure there is more to the story in Green's case. There isn't a publicly available explanation that makes sense to me. It is perhaps telling that Green never coached again. Rumors are that he was difficult to get along with, and insulting your fan base by telling them to skip games and hope for a Blue Light Special is always a bad idea.

Still, I wondered if it could have been handled better. Maybe Green was just too difficult of a personality. But maybe something could have been done to help. Maybe the athletic department could have done a better job at promoting the program. Maybe someone could have been assigned to handle Green to head off confrontations with the public.

And it is easy to imagine how Green might have been taken aback; the fans turned on him so quickly. It ended up being a significant setback for the program, both on and off the court, that would only be corrected when Bruce Pearl arrived at Tennessee. Not only did Pearl win nearly as frequently as Green, but Pearl was far, far more fan friendly. He went out of his way to reach out to Tennessee fans in a multitude of ways, and they certainly appreciated it. Being nice to people can go a long way, particularly when you are trying to engage the fan base.

So, I don't know what to think. Ultimately, Tennessee was probably right to fire Green, as you shouldn't insult your paying customers. But it shouldn't have gotten to that point in the first place.