LOUISVILLE (WAVE) - I am having a Big Orange headache. The Tennessee athletics director, former football coach Phillip Fulmer, apparently is trying hire away women's basketball coach Jeff Walz from the University of Louisville.
He is doing this at the same time his men’s team is getting ready to play Purdue on UofL’s home court in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA men’s tournament. Look on press row Thursday night and you’ll surely see him in a Big Orange sport coat.
So it’s difficult to see Coach Rick Barnes’ team getting a warm reception from local fans tonight in the KFC Yum! Center, although the Card faithful also aren’t too keen on Purdue or Virginia these days.
The fourth team in the Yum! Center will be the only one that has an NCAA title to its credit. On March 27, 1939, Oregon defeated Ohio State 46-33 in Evanston, Ill., to win the very first NCAA Tournament (although it then was sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches).
The drama about the Tennessee women’s job is especially unsettling to Walz, who needs no distractions as his No. 2 Cards take dead aim on what could be its first women’s national title.
When his name surfaced in Knoxille after Fulmer fired Holly Warlick following a first-round NCAA loss to UCLA, Walz angrily responded that he felt such early speculation was unfair to Warlick.
And that’s where things will stand until UofL’s NCAA tournament run is done.
As old-timers surely remember, this is Tennessee’s second assault on a UofL basketball program. The first, of course, came 31 years ago when the Vols hired longtime Denny Crum assistant Wade Houston to be its men’s coach.
It was the “package deal” that mattered. By hiring Wade, Tennessee also got his son Allan, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who had seemed destined to lead the Cards to their third NCAA championship.
Even now, Allan trails only LSU’s Pete Maravich on the all-time Southeastern Conference scoring list. Yet he never got to even play in the NCAA Tournament because Wade was unable to surround him with the sort of teammates he would have enjoyed at UofL.
We’re talking about the period from 1988, when Allan graduated from Ballard High School after leading Coach Scotty Davenport’s team to the state championship, through 1992, when the Detroit Pistons made Allan the No. 11 pick in the NBA Draft.
During those years, UofL was blessed to have such players as Pervis Ellison, Labradford Smith, Kenny Payne, Felton Spencer, Everick Sullivan, Greg Minor, Dwayne Morton, and Clifford Rozier.
Add Allan to that mix and surely the Cards would have added one more title, maybe more.
It was a tough situation for all concerned. You couldn’t blame Wade for taking his first opportunity to coach in a major conference. You couldn’t blame Tennessee for wanting the package deal. You couldn’t blame Allan for wanting to play for his dad.
And you couldn’t blame Crum for giving his blessing, however reluctantly. Allan had been hanging around old Crawford Gym since he was old enough to dribble. It was a given that he would be a Cardinal when the time came.
So now Tennessee apparently is coming after Walz to fill the seat once occupied by Pat Summit, the iconic coach who brought multiple national titles to Knoxville and surpassed the men’s program in popularity.
You can’t blame Tennessee for wanting Walz, one of the most successful and classiest coaches in the nation, men or women. You can’t blame Walz if he might be interested in talking to Tennessee at the proper time.
But the proper time is not now.
Walz and his second-ranked team currently are in Albany, N.Y., getting ready to play Oregon State on Friday in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. If they win, they probably will play UConn, the dynasty of all dynasties, for a berth in the Final Four.
In other words, he’s pretty much in the same pressure cooker as Tennessee men’s coach Rick Barnes, who’s two wins away from getting the Big Orange into its first Final Four ever. Tennessee will need all the crowd support it can get here instead of being cast as the villainous university trying to disrupt the UofL women’s season.
Tennessee’s 6-foot-7 Grant Williams will be the only consensus All-American on the floor Thursday night, but Virginia’s Kyle Guy, D’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome; Oregon freshman center Francis Okoro; and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards all are capable of dominating a game.
Even without an extra layer of drama, the Tennessee-Purdue game figures to be one of the best in the men’s tournament. Some UofL fans might have a hard time pulling for either, considering that Purdue recently managed to overcome Louisville’s overtures to football coach Jeff Brohm, the native son and former Cards’ star quarterback.
So many back stories, so many distractions. Please get me some aspirin. No, make that a bottle. This Big Orange headache isn’t going away anytime soon.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.