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Missouri and Tennessee are Racing with the Devil

Missouri and Tennessee find themselves in an oddly similar situation.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Those of you who've been around a while, and were into jazz a little bit in the 1970s might remember Al DiMeola. He was a really innovative Spanish jazz artist, ahead of his time. His hot licks on the guitar in the Spanish style really amazed me with their speed and precision. The base line is hot, too. Check it out:

This song reminds me of Tennessee and Missouri right now. They are in a race with the Devil to find a coach after being abandoned by their unloved existing coaches. The Devil, in this case, is represented by fan expectations. Right now, the Devil is winning that race.

Dana O'Neill says that Missouri and Tennessee need stability. She's right, but I'm not convinced they'll get it. Unfortunately, too many fans think all they need is a big-money coach with a big name. Blogs, and to some extent, the sports media, have reinforced this impression year upon year until now it is an article of faith. Just hire a great coach and YOU TOO can be Kentucky, or Duke, or North Carolina.

Everybody wants to hire a coach of the stature of John Calipari, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, or Bill Self, at least in the abstract without getting into individual personalities. Everyone wants that guy with a championship pedigree, or a guy who has turned down better jobs. What a coup it would be if you could buy one of them where other, more legendary programs could, or would not. Bring in a championship coach, and become an instant contender. Alas, those names already have jobs, or want better jobs than yours.

Tennessee and Missouri need to hire coaches that are able to embrace the needs of their students and administration, and become a part of the university culture, first and foremost. Cuonzo Martin was unable to do that. His hiring was widely greeted with a yawn and even some hostility at Tennessee who had loved Bruce Pearl even after he was caught breaking NCAA rules, and why not? Perhaps the biggest reason Pearl was so successful in Knoxville is that he was able to understand the culture of the people at Tennessee, and immediately embraced their program in a metaphorical bear-hug that simultaneously endeared him to the fans and did not frighten the university administration into second-guessing their choice.  He was also successful very, very quickly.

At Missouri, it was similar. Frank Haith had been successful at Miami of Florida, a traditional football power with a weak basketball program that had little fan support. He didn't turn the Hurricanes into a perennial NCAA Tournament team, but rather a perennial NIT team with one trip to the big dance. Comparatively speaking, it was considerable success, but Missouri had been used to frequent trips to the NCAA Tournament under head coaches Norm Stewart, Quinn Snyder, and Mike Anderson. By comparison, Haith wasn't an exciting hire, and at the time of the hiring, there were allegations of Haith's involvement in NCAA violations. Worse, Haith was hired to replace the popular Mike Anderson, who fled to his home state of Arkansas. Anderson was high-energy and embraced Missouri fans in a way that the more reserved Haith did not.

Both Haith and Martin had success at Missouri and Tennessee respectively. Haith's came early, and declined, and Martin's came later, and improved. But as has become clear from their departures to what many would consider lesser programs, neither were ever comfortable, the fans' support of them was tepid at best, and their respective athletics departments were unable or unwilling to support them enough to keep them.

Tennessee and Missouri are traditionally strong programs in college basketball, but neither are considered plum or destination jobs. Tennessee is a football school with good basketball support, but one who rarely climbed to the top of the SEC hierarchy. Missouri was a similar also-ran in the Big Eight/Big 12, although they have been historically better and more tournament-worthy for longer periods than Tennessee. When Missouri made the jump to the SEC, perhaps they were not-unreasonably hoping to find the going a bit easier in a conference that been struggling to produce NCAA Tournament-worth teams other than Kentucky and Florida.

What both Tennessee and Missouri really need is to find a coach that embraces their culture, and can win over their fan base with energy and effort. At this point, with most of their dreams of hiring Shaka Smart or Greg Marshall have been shattered by the reality that their positions are not powerful enough to draw them. Instead of going into panic mode and hiring the first big-name coach that becomes available and interested, they should find a man who can do what John Calipari did at Kentucky, and I'm not talking about recruiting "one-and-done" players — what Calipari did that few people recognize outside the program is embrace Kentucky's rabid fanbase as his own, and prove to them every day that he loves their passion and interest. Rick Pitino did much the same thing when he was hired at Kentucky, despite the clash of North-South cultures. Tubby Smith, who eventually left for a lesser program, never really could embrace Kentucky, and always held the fans at arms length. Gillispie had no idea where to begin to embrace the culture at Kentucky, even if he weren't disinclined to try.

If Missouri and Tennessee can find coaches who have had success elsewhere that fit their culture and can capture the imagination of the fans, it will enable the programs to find both the stability they need and the willingness to rebuild themselves bigger and better. When a coach is reinforced by the power of appreciation from the school and its supporters, great things can happen, but it has to be reciprocated. Lack of experience at the Division I level should not be an overriding consideration. Consider Bo Ryan of Wisconsin, a man who came from Division III to take a traditional Big Ten also-ran to a Final Four this season, and multiple consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

So in summary, my advice to Missouri and Tennessee is to forget about the big names. O'Neil is right in that you need stability, but more importantly, you need a coach who can make you believe in your programs again; coaches who will embrace and respect your fans, your university culture and athletics administration. You need coach who has something to prove, who has a chip on his shoulder, and who will not consider your respective programs a stepping stone to the Bigger Better Deal. Greg Marshall and Shaka Smart did not come to Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth as stars. They were moving themselves up from lesser or assistant positions.

Embrace what you are, Tennessee and Missiouri. Then, perhaps, you will get the kind of coach you deserve, one that will grow your programs from the inside out like Marshall and Smart have already done, not prostitute you for their own enrichment and near-term success. Bruce Pearl did it at Tennessee. Mike Anderson did it at Missouri. Both came from places where they had to do more with less. That's the kind of guy that fits your program. That's the kind of coach you need.