This Sunday, Tennessee will say farewell to three senior members of the BasketVols: Jordan Howell, Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, as they play their final game in Thompson-Boling Arena. They will be missed.
Their time wearing orange hasn’t always been easy, in fact at times I am quite sure it was terribly difficult -- far more difficult than it was for Tennessee fans. Buzz Peterson recruited each of these young men to come play for Tennessee. Then, just as they concluded their first season in Knoxville, Buzz Peterson’s time as head coach came to an end. Having never experienced what it is like to endure a coaching change from inside the program, I can only imagine the impact it must have had on them at the time.
Every recruit at every program believes they will succeed when they first walk on the campus as a college basketball player. Part of this belief comes from the unbridled optimism of youth, part from a sense of self-confidence born out of past successes, and part from the assurances poured out to them in their living rooms during the recruiting process. No one starts out believing they will lose. Only, time, skill, hard work, experience, and a fair amount of luck will determine whether that belief becomes a reality.
College athletes compete in a very finite universe. They know they have four years to make their mark -- after that they must move on. In some cases, this is a cruel truth. I can only imagine that these three seniors probably felt this cruelty when, in 2005, their head coach was fired.
The firing of Buzz Peterson probably left each of these seniors with many questions. When will we get a new coach? What will the new coach be like? How will I fit into his system? Will our personalities matchup well? Could we have done more to win? Will there still be a place for me under the new coach? Did I waste my one and only chance at basketball success?
This last question sticks out to me. When these seniors were but one year into their college career, the athletic department determined that their team’s performance was lackluster enough that their coach had to go. For an 18 or 19 year-old, that often means "we weren’t good enough, so the program is starting over."
Regardless of what they thought of Peterson at the time, the dejection these seniors felt must have been considerable. While they might never admit it, I am sure they all thought, "Well, I just wasted my four years by coming to Tennessee..." After all, everybody know that it is impossible for a new head coach to come in to rebuild a program and start winning immediately......or is it?
I so wish I could have sat in and listened to that first meeting these seniors had with their new coach -- some guy from Wisconsin named Pearl. I would love to know what Bruce Pearl said to those young men to not only show them that he believed they could win, but to make them believe it as well. Whatever it was, it is obvious that they took it to heart and sold out completely to Pearl’s vision for the future. The conventional wisdom is that you cannot instantly go from "goat" to "great." Yet, these men swallowed any fears of the future, stayed positive, committed themselves to working their butts off, and embraced that uncertainty. Conventional wisdom be damned -- there is nothing "conventional" about Bruce Pearl.
Now, only three short years after they were in the depths of disappointment over the 2005 season and the departure of their coach, they are standing tall ... as champions.
Along with Coach Pearl and his staff, these seniors have not only witnessed one of the greatest transformations in University of Tennessee sports history -- they made it happen. These young men saw the legions of empty seats in "The Big Brown Box," but have also felt the electric atmosphere of a jam-packed Tommy Bowl ready to explode. They felt the sting of not receiving an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, but now are staring a No. 1 or No. 2 seeding dead in the face. They remember the apathetic fans who simply viewed basketball as something to occupy the time until football season, but now they know what it is like to be consumed by the intoxicating frenzy of thousands of fans focused completely on their fortunes on the hardwood.
As fans, we always say thank-you’s to departing seniors out of a recognition that they gave of themselves for a period of time to elevate a team, a program, and a university. That giving is worthy of gratitude. In the case of these seniors, however, they not only gave their time, effort, and ability to the Tennessee family, they also gave their trust and their loyalty. It would have been very easy for these seniors to either transfer or simply "mail-in" the rest of their time here -- under the assumption that they were simply the leftovers from the last era. When you are an 18 or 19 year-old college student, you don’t have a lot of "pull" in the world, you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have the ability to bring huge resources to the table.
When you are 18 or 19 years old, all you have is your ability, your mind, your heart, your love, and your devotion. These players gave every last bit of these to Tennessee...
For that sacrifice on their part, this Vol will be forever grateful. I want to personally thank Jordan, Chris and JaJuan not so much for what they did on the court, but for the type of people they are. I want to thank them for staying the course, and for believing in something bigger than themselves. I want to thank them for helping to start something great. I want to thank each of them for being the kind of young man I hope my step-son grows up to be. Best wishes, men, and Godspeed.
This weekend, Jordan Howell, Chris Lofton, and JaJuan Smith will say goodbye to the Tommy Bowl, and will walk through the student section one last time. I hope they feel the gratitude of the Orange Nation. I hope they feel they made the right decision. I hope -- for them -- it was worth it.I know it certainly was a joy for all of us...
Images Courtesy of: UTSports.com
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