Tennessee is a bit of an usual state for a variety of reasons. First, it is the state whose borders touch the borders of the largest number of other states. Tennessee borders Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri. It was decidedly a Southern state during the Civil War, and judging by the number of rebel flags you’ll see here on any given day, some people are still fighting it.
It produced Presidents James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson and maybe the most unlikely President in Andrew Johnson. The man who succeeded Abraham Lincoln didn’t come from a legal or business background. Johnson was a tailor in his hometown of Greeneville before getting into politics.
It has four metropolitan areas, Knoxville to the East, Chattanooga to the South, Nashville in the middle and Memphis to the West. It’s very much three states as East Tennessee has little in common with West Tennessee. Outside of those four metropolitans areas however, it’s basically country akin to West Virginia. Nashville may well have been a dusty old country town at one point in its history where Hank Williams, Sr., and Johnny Cash migrated to make country music king, but it’s anything but dusty now. It’s a vibrant city with professional sports and yes is still the epicenter of country music. A Nashville native once told me that when he was younger he could walk into any restaurant in the City and know everyone. Now he walks into those restaurants and doesn’t know anyone. Chances are strong that your bellman at the hotel will have come from somewhere else with his guitar and a dream.
Ask anyone here and they’ll tell you that without Tennessee, there would be no Texas. Davy Crockett fought at the Alamo, and the City of Houston is named after Sam Houston, who just happens to be a native of Tennessee. The mountains are beautiful and hundreds of thousands of people spend their vacations in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains. I don’t quite get that, but hey that’s their money not mine.
It’s also unusual in that while it’s largely considered a football state (thanks mostly to the University of Tennessee), it turns out very few Division 1 high school football prospects although in fairness, the number is rising. But, Tennessee is becoming known for its basketball and this year the State figures to put three of its schools into the NCAA Tournament, all with coaches who have come to the Volunteer State – or back to it – looking for redemption.
It’s easy to call Tennessee coach Rick Barnes and his team the best story of the year in the Volunteer state. To be sure, Barnes – who just three years ago was shown the door at Texas and north of 60 years old appeared to be unemployable – has done an incredible job with Tennessee basketball. I’ve said before and I’m saying it again, the arena is too big at 21,000 seats. It’s not full except for big games. Make no mistake that when it is full it’s a tremendous environment. It’s when it’s not, it’s rightfully earned the nickname Thompson-Boring Arena.
I love Barnes as a coach because he doesn’t worry about how many stars a recruit has. He takes guys who were overlooked, have chips on their shoulder and coaches the hell out of them. Tennessee was picked 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC’s pre-season media poll (tells you all you need to know about the buffet brigade). They are currently second in the league and stand to earn both a double bye in the Conference Tournament and a top 16 seed in the NCAA. If you are a 1 or a 2 seed, you don’t want them in your bracket.
The best two stories in Tennessee belong to two directional schools….East Tennessee State and Middle Tennessee State. ETSU is located on a beautiful little campus in Johnson City. Johnson City is known as the home of Hall of Fame Football Coach and noted U-T antagonist Steve Spurrier. It’s a city of about 50,000 people and is part of the tri-cities with Kingsport and Bristol.
Basketball success at ETSU is not unusual. In the 90s, they pulled one of the tournament’s biggest upsets when a player named Keith “Mister” Jennings led them to a first round win over Arizona. But, for a few years the program had slipped under no-coaching Murray Bartow. Had Bartow not been the son of legendary coach Gene Barton he’d have been selling Craftsman mowers a long time ago. To revive the fortunes of the program, ETSU took a chance on a coach with NCAA baggage and it’s worked out in a big way.
Steve Forbes didn’t play college basketball. Instead he was a baseball player, but he learned his craft at coaching basketball from some of the nation’s best including Bruce Pearl at Tennessee. Forbes was making a nice living at Tennessee and living the good life in a large Knoxville house, but when Pearl committed an NCAA violation, Forbes helped cover for his boss by lying to the NCAA. Loyalty is to be commended. Stupidity is not. Forbes drew a one-year NCAA show cause and was exiled to the junior college ranks as the Head Coach at Northwest Florida Junior College. His team was very good, the sun always shined, but Forbes was making just $60,000 per year at Northwest Florida and his mortgage payment on his home in Knoxville that he couldn’t sell during the depressed housing market took all of his salary.
Forbes rebuilt his career as an assistant at Wichita State. At the time, Wichita State was a member of the Missouri Valley and had to mine the Junior Colleges for talent. Who better to do that than a former J.C. coach.
Needing a boost, ETSU looked beyond the NCAA problems and hired Forbes. Forbes took ETSU to the NCAA tournament last season after losing in the Southern Conference Tournament in his first year. This year’s team is 23-5 and at one point had the nation’s longest winning streak at 16 straight. His career 74-25 record just earned him a new contract at ETSU under which he’ll make $625,000.00 per year. But, he knows better than anyone that the Southern Conference is a one-bid league and ETSU cannot afford to fumble it away at the Conference Tournament in Asheville next week.
Just south of Nashville is another redemption story at Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU is surprisingly the largest campus in Tennessee with approximately 40,000 students. It’s located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee which was once a small town, but now is not as a large suburb of Nashville.
Kermit Davis is into his 16th season at MTSU. His team is 17-5 and 9-1 and in first place in Conference USA. And, for the first time in the school’s history, MTSU is ranked in the A.P. Top 25 at number 24. That won’t get you into the tournament, but it is certainly a testament to a program that Davis has built after he managed to rebuild himself.
Davis played at Mississippi State and began his career as a Graduate Assistant at the school. From there he took an assistant job at Idaho and when noted job-hopper Tim Floyd left Idaho, Davis was promoted to head coach. He went 25-6 in both 1989 and 1990 winning the Big Sky Tournament and going to the NCAA Tournament both seasons.
Davis saw a bigger prize and jumped to Texas A&M, which was then in the conference of cheaters, the old Southwest Conference. Davis did what most other SWC coaches did in those days, he cheated. Five NCAA violations drew Texas A&M probation and combined with a 8-21 record, drew Davis unemployment. It also drew him a 3 year NCAA show cause and sent Davis – like Forbes – to coaching in Junior College for three seasons. After bouncing from Utah State, back to Idaho and then to LSU, MTSU took a chance on Davis and the two found the perfect marriage. Davis took MTSU – then a member of the Sun Belt to the NIT in 2012 and 2013. The school moved to Conference USA and in 2016, the Blue Raiders won the C-USA title and an NCAA tournament spot. All MTSU did was take advantage of its opportunity and as a 15th seed beat 2nd seed Michigan State in the first round.
This year MTSU figures to get into the NCAA even if they don’t win the Conference USA Tournament which sets up shop in two weeks in Frisco, Texas. But, they are the favorite to win and earn the automatic bid, and someone is going to earn a few sleepless nights trying to figure out a way to beat MTSU. The MTSU administration might also have a few sleepless nights trying to keep Davis in town. 16 years is a long time in one place, and there’s a job open at Ole Miss. Ole Miss doesn’t have anything if not a bunch of deep pocketed old-Southern boosters who like to win.
Yes, Tennessee is an unusual state in a lot of ways, but in some ways it’s extraordinary. Memphis has long been a National Power in College Basketball and Vanderbilt may be struggling this year, but has two of the nation’s top players coming in next year. So, the Volunteer State isn’t going away in basketball anytime soon. And at least for the University of Tennessee basketball program, there might not be any Tennessee without Texas.