Whenever highly touted teams have disappointing seasons in any sport, college or professional, there are calls for change. Usually that means firing a coach or manager, because it’s much easier to do that than turn over an entire roster. It’s also harder to can athletic directors, general managers, team presidents or player personnel directors, because those folks often claim the coaches and/or managers aren’t properly developing or getting maximum results out of premium talent.
Athletic directors at Vanderbilt (Malcom Turner) and Tennessee (Phillip Fulmer) face tough decisions as the Commodores’ men’s team and Lady Vols recently completed historically bad seasons. Vandy’s men became the first SEC team since the implementation of an 18-game regular schedule to go winless. At press time they were going into the SEC Tournament’s first round sporting a school record 19-game losing streak.
Head coach Bryce Drew is in the third season of a six-year deal, but the 2018-19 team has set a host of negative marks. They include the most losses in school history, Vandy’s first home losing season, and a record string of defeats. In fairness things went completely south after their best player (and consensus NBA lottery pick) Darius Garland was lost for the year due to injury. But no one expected an 0-18 mark in the SEC.
The Lady Vols were expected to bounce back this season, but instead are on the NCAA Tournament bubble after a quarterfinal loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament. Veteran coach Holly Warlick was already under fire in a year where Tennessee experienced some dreadful defeats. Those include a home blowout loss to a Vanderbilt team that was 1-13 in the SEC and had never beaten Tennessee at home in their history. They also endured a school record six game SEC losing streak, and the worse regular season loss in team history to Mississippi State.
The News Sentinel’s John Adams called for Warlick’s firing the day after the Vandy loss, and it’s highly doubtful a couple of SEC Tournament wins changed his mind. If the Lady Vols miss the NCAA Tournament, chances Warlick can survive for a ninth season become even tougher. Fulmer has used the luster of the Tennessee men’s team’s success to avoid dealing with this question for a good while, but he knows he must eventually address the issue.
Turner’s only comments about the basketball situation were a recent public statement he was “committed to the return of Memorial Magic.” There are a lot of questions about not just Drew, but also women’s coach Stephanie White, whose Vandy team got bounced in the first round of the SEC Tournament and had another 20 loss season. The Lady Commodores have been dreadful not just this year, but through the bulk of her tenure as head coach. Both Drew and White have good reputations as recruiters and tactical coaches, but the results on the floor have been ugly.
That Drew hasn’t been at Vandy as long as White (five seasons) and has a potential NBA star returning in Aaron Nesmith, plus some other highly touted newcomers arriving in Dylan Disu, Austin Crowley and Scotty Pippen Jr. are factors favoring his return. The Commodores will also have the services of redshirt center Ejike Obinna.
Firing coaches in many instances is an unfair overreaction to more complex and serious problems. However in terms of public relations and fan reaction, it often creates the impression those at the top care about results and winning. Whether that means the end, or one last chance for Bryce Drew, Holly Warlick and Stephanie White, will be determined in the days and weeks ahead.