Dan Fleser: White Begins To Pick Up The Pieces For The Vols

Friday, January 22, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

A friend and former colleague of mine did some sobering math on Twitter this week.

 

The University of Tennessee alum recounted his senior year on Rocky Top. He added up all the losses suffered by football and the men’s and women’s basketball teams and came up with nine in their respective regular seasons – combined. Just nine.

 

I’m not going to demand a recount.

I’ll take his word for it. I also appreciate his anguish when he concluded, “This feels like a million years from there.”

 

It’s actually only 23 years. The “million” applies to the losses of the past week, or so it seemed when you also consider personnel attrition. The past five days have had enough grief for five years.

 

I don’t trust my math in reviewing what’s happened since Monday. My perspective is challenged in appraising it. But I’ll try.

 

Football: Moving swiftly to hire Danny White as the new athletic director on Thursday played out as welcome relief to a beleaguered fan base. His hiring record as the AD at Central Florida and Buffalo offers reason for hope.

 

He’ll need all of his skills to attract a coach under these circumstances. The program is under investigation both internally and by the NCAA for recruiting violations. The Vols already have lost 15 players from last season’s roster.

 

“Nothing is insurmountable,” White said on Friday during his introductory press conference. “We’ll get through this.”

 

White began his coaching search Friday afternoon by talking to the players and getting their input.

When Matt Rhule arrived as Baylor’s new coach in 2017, a sexual assault scandal had helped reduce the roster to 45 scholarship players. The Bears went 1-11 in his first season. Two years later, the Bears were playing in the Big 12 Championship Game.

 

So maybe White can find someone like Rhule. And that someone will be able to get back to 85 scholarships with a 25-player signing cap.

 

In the meantime, White described being Tennessee’s AD under the prevailing circumstances as “a big challenge” but also said it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore one of the most iconic programs in college athletics.”

 

Women’s basketball: One Connecticut player was uniquely qualified to remind the Lady Vols Thursday that they’re not who they used to be.

 

Former Tennessee guard Evina Westbrook returned to Thompson-Boling Arena as a member of the Huskies. She hit two clutch 3-pointers during a fourth-quarter rally that erased UT’s four-point lead and sparked UConn to a 67-61 victory.

 

“It was not an easy thing for her coming down here,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, “but I thought she was unbelievably good.”

 

No. 25 Tennessee (9-3) looked believably competitive against its old rival. The Lady Vols’ length gave the No. 3 Huskies (9-0) problems. They hung in there despite foul trouble limiting the first-half impact of starters Jordan Horston and Rennia Davis. They couldn’t afford Horston’s 1-for-11 shooting, however.

 

“The losses that we have had, we have come out of those better,” UT coach Kellie Harper said. “We have handled them very well.”

 

A visit from No. 13 Kentucky on Sunday will test that trend.

 

Men’s basketball: In this context, a 75-49 loss at Florida on Tuesday might be the least of UT’s worries. Still, it’s a worry.

 

The Gators were missing three of their top players and still overwhelmed the Vols. The outcome fed lingering concerns about No. 6 Tennessee’s offensive viability and its in-game team leadership.

  

* * *

 

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.


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