KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — These are tough times for Tennessee athletics.
The NCAA has finally wrapped up its investigation that has been hanging over the men’s basketball and the football programs for more than two years. To escape additional punishments stemming from the probe, the university placed self-imposed recruiting limitations on second-year football coach Derek Dooley and newly hired men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin.
The last time the football team made news in the mighty Southeastern Conference was with Lane Kiffin’s controversial antics; Dooley can only promise the team will be better, not good.
Martin’s basketball outlook may not be much better.
Iconic women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt has been diagnosed with early onset dementia — Alzheimer’s type.
“I’m ready to have calm waters,” interim athletics director Joan Cronan said Wednesday. “I’m ready to go forward. I told our staff this morning that our focus was the passion, pride and tradition of Tennessee and that would move us forward.”
Summitt’s challenges are only beginning. The Hall of Fame coach announced Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with the progressive cognitive disorder but pledged to continue coaching as long as she felt healthy enough to do so.
But her storied Lady Vols program has struggled recently by Summitt’s standards. The Lady Vols have won eight national championships and reached 18 Final Fours, however they haven’t reached a Final Four in three seasons — which ties the program’s longest drought.
Another Final Four trip or a ninth national title won’t cure Summitt, but it would go a long way toward getting Tennessee athletics back to normal.
“We have a tremendous tradition,” associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “It’s going to continue to be strong. We’re all going to make sure it moves forward. Pat is always going to be a part of this. That is the foundation that we’re building everything on.”
The Lady Vols may be Tennessee’s best shot. The football program is struggling to return to the glory that has eluded it since longtime coach Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008.
The Vols haven’t played for a national title since winning the 1998 BCS crown and haven’t won more than seven games in the past three seasons. Players left in droves after Fulmer was fired and his replacement, Lane Kiffin, bolted for Southern California after one season.
Kiffin led the Vols to seven wins, but his short tenure is more remembered for the infamous notoriety to the program.
And though Dooley has managed to bring in some talented players, there’s a lot of work to be done before the Vols can hope to be a regular Southeastern Conference championship contender again.
“You ask them to be better today than you were yesterday, and so far our team is doing that,” Dooley said of this year’s team. “It doesn’t mean we’re any good.”
On Wednesday, a week and a half before Tennessee’s season opener, Dooley dismissed one of his top players, junior safety Janzen Jackson. Dooley said Jackson’s personal issues, which he took five months off school to deal with, had become too much of a distraction.
“Although I’m disappointed with this outcome, we will never compromise the long-term organizational values and goals we maintain here at Tennessee,” Dooley said.
The men’s basketball team’s successes have been more recent, with Pearl leading the Vols to their only No. 1 ranking and only appearance in the NCAA tournament regional finals. But it came with a price.
Pearl was still a popular coach when Tennessee fired him in March, despite his admission he lied to the NCAA.
Tennessee lost its top player, Tobias Harris, who skipped his final three years of eligibility to enter the NBA draft, but Martin has managed to cobble together an incoming class of five new players.
Like the football program, Martin and the basketball team dodged any major punishments with Pearl bearing the brunt of the NCAA’s anger in a three-year show-cause penalty that will make it very difficult for another program to hire him.
Martin had said in May that he thought the program would be fine as long as the NCAA’s punishments were minimal.
“As long as there’s no postseason ban, we’ll be OK and we can weather the storm,” he said.
Trying to tread water until the impact of the NCAA investigation passes, the recruiting limitations are lifted and the probation expires might be all Tennessee can expect.
UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek isn’t necessarily concerned with titles, he just expects Dooley and Martin to keep Tennessee out of trouble and wants Summitt to coach as long as she’s able to.
“It is time for the University of Tennessee to put this behind us and look forward,” he said. “We have great coaches and great student-athletes, and now it’s time to go out there and compete.”