In the good old SEC spirit of spite, and with a nod to the spate of commissions that reported on who screwed up what after Katrina, our Committee of Way-Too-Far Insiders convened this week at the Scene Sports Desk at McCabe Pub. We graded the SEC’s basketball coaches, separated the Brownies from the Chertoffs and the Vols from the Gators, and generally shared the hate, just the way we love it.
BRUCE PEARL, TENNESSEE: A+ He’s not the only worthwhile candidate, but if anyone is more deserving of national coach of the year honors than Pearl, we’ll buy you a donut. Along with almost everyone else, we’re still trying to cipher out how Pearl took an odd lot of what we’ll politely call underachievers—who had lost their leading scorer, to boot—and turned them into a Top Ten team. No, they probably won’t go deep into the NCAA Tournament, because defense is about as foreign to this bunch as afternoon tea and scones. But Pearl already has made his reputation in East Tennessee as a Jewish miracle-worker second only to the one most UT fans venerate on Sundays.
Maybe an even greater miracle was that UT’s brain trust, which is still making payments to its last two coaching abortions, mustered up enough sense to hire Pearl, who has won nearly 80 percent of his games during 14 seasons.
Pearl also endeared himself to our panelists by presenting himself as a reincarnation of orange-coated Ray Mears. The old Vol coach, who could whip up a hostile crowd as effortlessly as Martha Stewart prepares a snack, was worth the price of a ticket even if the team never got around to playing the basketball game. Already, Pearl has earned the enmity of LSU coach John Brady, who said he lacked class. As one Way Insider pointed out, being called classless by an LSU coach is like being called ugly by a warthog. But Pearl also has won haters in the Gator and Wildcat Nations. “They can’t hate you unless they take you seriously,” noted one Vol rooter. “It’s great to be hated again.”
TUBBY SMITH, KENTUCKY: C- Our panelists traditionally defend Tubby from some of the snarlier Wildcat fans, who appear more comfortable with black lungs than black basketball coaches. But we’re close to bailing. Inexplicably, the cupboard at UK looks no more than half-full. As often as not this year, the Wildcats have been less talented than their opponents. By Bluegrass standards, it’s an unacceptably mediocre record. Even if his team gets an NCAA bid (an iffy proposition), Tubby will need a high-powered recruiting class to avoid the hot seat next year. Provided he survives this one.
KEVIN STALLINGS, VANDERBILT: C- Some Insiders thought even a D+ was generous. This should’ve been Vandy’s year. Of course, when your star player and floor leader, Mario Moore, suddenly goes off the grid just before the season, regrouping is a challenge. Still, even with Moore as a cipher, the Commodores would be looking good for an NCAA berth had they bothered to show up at Memorial Gym for a full 40 minutes against overmatched Georgia, and had they not blown a 10-point lead in the waning moments against South Carolina.
There’s one other Way Insider theory. Despite consecutive disappointing seasons, perhaps Stallings isn’t worried about job security. Without an athletic director, the folks at Kirkland Hall dread having to search for new head coaches and expose their lack of experience. Don’t look for anyone to get fired at Vandyland anytime soon.
JOHN BRADY, LSU: B With near victories at UConn and Ohio State, the Brady Bunch served notice that they could go far in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, as one Insider noted, a Shelby Park Rec League team could go far in the NCAAs if they had 310-pound Glen Davis at center.
STAN HEATH, ARKANSAS: B+ For his first three years in Fayetteville, Heath looked like another mediocre coach who parlayed one good year (at Kent State) into a great job. This year, his still-young Razorback team has jelled. With their win last week in Knoxville, they’ve all but assured themselves an NCAA spot.
BILLY DONOVAN, FLORIDA: B He lost three stalwarts and still has a Top 20 team. Great coaching? Maybe. Attempting modesty, members of his fraternity sometimes say that great players make great coaches. In Donovan’s case, it may be true. During the past decade, he has become the SEC’s most effective recruiter of talent. You don’t have to be a great floor strategist when you can simply plug and play.
DAVE ODOM, SOUTH CAROLINA: D Four starters returned from a team that won the NIT last year, yet the Cocks are floundering. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Odom, who can work the X’s and O’s as well as anyone, couldn’t get to a Final Four at Wake Forest even with Tim Duncan.
MARK GOTTFRIED, ALABAMA: C Yes, the Tide were hamstrung by injuries. But even more, they’re hamstrung by great talent that never seems to become more than the sum of its parts. The spirit of Jerry Green lives!
DENNIS FELTON, GEORGIA: A- Don’t let the record fool you: Felton is a terrific coach. Once again, his team has surprised some folks this year (Vandy and Georgia Tech among them), and all five starters return next year. It’s not Felton’s fault he inherited a train wreck from Jim Harrick, the Jack Abramoff of college hoops. It will be his fault if he stays many more years at a school where there is so little fan support for basketball.
JEFF LEBO, AUBURN: C Everyone expected Auburn to be terrible. They didn’t disappoint.
We gave Rod Barnes of Ole Miss and Rick Stansbury of Mississippi State a pass. They’ve had sucky seasons. We’ll let them blame it on Katrina. If they still suck next year, we’ll be on ’em.