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Buzz Peterson Interview

January 5, 2004 Columns No Comments

An Interview with Tennessee’s Buzz Peterson

by Bill “CigarBoy” Kintner

Buzz came out to the basketball office lobby to greet me with a handshake and a big smile. When we walked into his office I couldn’t believe how big it was. It was as big as my bachelor pad. Off of his office was a video room with a big conference table. The video room looked like the inside of a ESPN truck. With tons of TV monitors and what looked like a big control board. He could probably rent it out as a movie production studio.

Buzz is a friendly and easygoing as anyone I have ever met. When he talks to you he looks right at you and when he listens he seems very intent on hearing every word you are saying. Another basketball coach once told me “Buzz knows no class.” That means he treats everyone the same. He treats the janitor the same as he would treat an important businessman or a his boss. That has to be true because he treated me like I was actually someone of importance.

Buzz first burst upon the college basketball scene as a player for North Carolina’s 1982 NCAA National Championship team and he got some interesting story material as Michael Jordan’s college roommate. In 1996 he became the coach at Appalachian State and won better than 20 games 3 of his 4 years there. In 2000 he won 26 games at Tulsa and then he came to Tennessee. God has placed success squarely in his path. Even before college he was one of North Carolina’s most decorated high school players. He was a Parade and McDonald’s All-America coming out of Asheville high School. He was named North Carolina Player of the Year and Athlete of the Year as a senior. The runner up for both awards was none other than Michael Jordan.

So sit back and as you read this interview and try to imagine a good old country boy who speaks very well, constantly flashes his million-dollar smile and listens with the same intensity he has when he coaches.

Bill Kintner: You have been the moving king during your career. You do know there are a lot of jokes about your constant moving among fellow coaches? .

Buzz Peterson: I moved a lot there for a while. I guess I have had 3 different jobs within a span of no time really. From Appalachian State, to Tulsa to here. I joke around a lot about moving pretty quickly but I couldn’t pass up the two opportunities and especially this one with Tennessee. My buddy in New Mexico, Ritchie McKay, he had to move quickly to New Mexico and sometime you have to go with the best situation.

Kintner: I got lost trying to follow the interview process when you were looking at UT. You were considering Tennessee, Georgia Tech…

Peterson: If anyone wants to know how to interview, I’ve done a few of them.

Kintner: But this last round it was Tennessee and one or two other schools. Wasn’t Tulsa making a counter offer too?

Peterson: Yeah, cause I talked to South Carolina and Tennessee. My roots are from here. My granddad is from Knoxville area. My dad went to school here and I’ve got a lot of relatives around the Knoxville area so it was the one I really, really wanted. I wanted to get closer to home and be around a lot of family members.

Kintner: Right around the first week of the NCAA tournament, I get a bunch of CigarBoy snitches that go there and get all the gossip. Who’s going to what job and a lot of behind the scenes stuff. Then I write a column on what’s happening and I’m right 9 times out of ten. A few years ago I had this incredible track record but I had Bruiser Flint not going to Duquene, but going to Drexel. I called it perfectly. Flint not going to LaSalle but Drexel. But I made the call that you would stay at Tulsa. The reason was that you would never go somewhere that draws 20,000 for women’s basketball. Who wants to go there? And sure enough, you came here and it looks like it’s going to be a heck of a success.

Peterson: It’s a great opportunity here. If you look back at the sports at some of what they’ve done, like the swimming program.. We only have 8 men’s sports really. Not that many if you count indoor and outdoor track as one, and then you’ve got cross country in there with track and field so we don’t have a lot of sports. We have a super athletic department. Not many athletic programs in the country have separate men’s and women’s departments. We’ve got all the resources. I look at it like what’s happening at Michigan, they know its turning around so it can be done. It takes some time and a lot of hard work.

Kintner: OK, you considered going to a place that draws 20,000 for a women’s game. Did you look at that and all the guys who have come and gone. Was that in the equation?

Peterson: I thought about it some but also when you start thinking about your family and all that. I mean, I grew up as a kid over in Ashville, NC. Came to a lot of basketball and football games as a kid. So just being a fan of Tennessee, I spent a lot of time watching Volunteer sports. I look at it as a challenge. You know…. why can’t the men’s program be there? So that’s why we continue to work on it. Trying to get it to where the program needs to be. I also know this; when I looked at the situation, Jerry Green was very successful. Four straight years, of 20+ wins. I was looking at what was going on here and I told my wife I knew I had to hit this job head-on. There is something going on there we don’t know about and that’s where I had to dismiss two of the guys, my first year. So now we are, I don’t want to call it rebuilding., We are trying to establish a program. That is what we are trying to do and doing it with newcomers. That’s where we are right now.

Kintner: Did your wife say “anything you want to do.” Or did she say, “Tennessee or nothing?”

Peterson: Whatever. She really liked Tulsa. She liked the community and everything but she was real tickled to be here because it was like home.. For the holidays the family is here with us.

Kintner: Is she from this area?

Peterson: Yeah, so it’s back with family!

Kintner: You talked about having a young team. I look at your schedule and pre-conference looks pretty light.

Peterson: For a reason.

Kintner: Talk to me about your scheduling philosophy.

Peterson: I really think you’ve got to adapt it to your personnel and everything. Yeah, we’re going to get on TV enough, that’s no big deal but I want to make sure that I’m building this thing up and getting us ready for conference play which is the most important. I always look at it and see it in three parts. 1) non-conference, 2) conference, 3) the post season. I’ve got to build them up right for that conference play and try to win as many games as possible. I don’t think RPI is a factor for us, because once you get into league play, it’s going to be high enough anyway.

Kintner: I bet that’s quite a bit different than how you scheduled at Tulsa. What’s the difference between coaching at Tennessee and Tulsa?

Peterson: Oh, at Tulsa, you were trying to get big games. You were trying to play some of the top opponents. Most of the time, you’d have to go to their place first. For us at Tulsa, that was fine. .

Kintner: They must have been two for one?

Peterson: Two for one, had to go to Iowa, play the tournament and play there twice. Two games there and then they come our place. Kansas was one in Lawrence one in Kansas City, and one in Tulsa. But that’s the philosophy. We are trying to get the money. The harder thing at Tulsa was these guarantee games cause it now means we’ve gotta cross the Mississippi so you would have to pay more to get to the game because of the farther travel. Here in Tennessee we’ve got so many schools locally, we don’ t have to pay as much as we did at Tulsa because there’s so many around, you just get in a bus and drive a couple hours and you can pay them a guarantee.

Kintner: The directional schools of the world?

Peterson: There’s Martin, Chattanooga, East Tennessee, they are all around.

Kintner: Besides scheduling, what’s the difference between coaching in Tennessee and Tulsa?

Peterson: I think the big thing is the league. In the SEC, the game’s on TV. It’s a lot of exposure. It’s just out there across the country where at Tulsa the WAC did not quite get the exposure. The WAC was always right there with Conference USA running a 7, 8 spot, in the RPI. Of course you’ve got the top 6 conferences. So the big thing is the conference separates you so much.

Kintner: When you are selling Tennessee you are probably selling tradition and the conference. At Tulsa, what were you selling?

Peterson: We were selling small school, nice environment, nice arena, chance to play in conference., W sold that we were an up and coming program. They may call it mid-majors but, one that the majors don’t like to play against..

Kintner: What’s your coaching philosophy? Can you sum it up in a few sentences?

Peterson: I always feel like it’s what I want to do every single day. When I have my players out there I try to motivate them every single day and get them to reach their maximum potential every day out there. Sometimes they have had a tough day in class. That’s where I found out that you’ve got to get into every person’s head. You have really got to try to motivate them, get them fired up. I don’t believe in swearing or any of that. There’s other ways to do it. That’s why I try to get into them, motivate and get them to play to the highest level they can that day. We only go four days, then we take a day off. The season’s long enough as it is so I don’t want to drag it out. We try to keep our minds fresh and our legs fresh, that why we take that break on the fifth day

Kintner: Does that mean you are always rotating your off day?

Peterson: Yeah, after every game we will take a rest. We rotate an off day. I haven’t gotten into my coaching philosophy. I was big into stats, X’s and O’s with all that stuff. But I don’t buy that anymore. I know it’s important. I’ve really found that it’s got to the part of micro managing now. How do you micro-manage your players. It’s a little business. I have some talented guys but I’ve got some guys that need to get stronger mentally. That’s why we hired this company to come down and do this psychology test to figure out personalities. Ohio State’s doing it, Rutgers, UNLV and us are doing it. I just want to find out what motivates my players. I want to know how many leaders I’ve got and how many followers. I have a lot of followers. You don’t need that many. I need to recruit some leaders out there. So I may take a lesser talented player but I need somebody that wins a lot of ball games and is a leader. That’s the program I have.

Kintner: Did you ever think about that in Tulsa, leader vs follower?

Peterson: I always looked at X’s and O’s and stuff like that, get the best talent you can. And that is how I did it. I found out about getting into different minds of what they were thinking. Why aren’t we going hard today? What don’t you want to go hard today? What’s wrong with your competitive level?

Kintner: What I’m going to do is throw out the names of some coaches and you give me a sentence or two that comes to mind. Steve Alford.

Peterson: One of my best friends. Communicate with him every two or three days. He is just a person that’s lived a dream life. All-American kid type but just somebody that I have a lot of respect for. We have a lot of things in common. Three kids, about the same age, and he’s one of my best friends.

Kintner: Barry Collier

Peterson: Barry’s a hard worker, pretty intense, one of the nice guys in this profession. Keeps things to himself. Minds his own business. Keeps his nose down and works hard.

Kintner: John Calipari

Peterson: Have you ever seen a fish mounted on a wall, has his mouth open all the time. That’s what reminds me of Cal. (chuckling) No, John is the life of a party. He’s got a lot of energy. We are connected through Larry Brown a little bit. He worked for Larry. John has been very good to me and I respect that. I’d call him a close friend.

Kintner: Bob Huggins

Peterson: Huggs, I don’t know him that well. I know we see each other, and speak to each other but….. when you get down to the fact of people motivating their players to play hard, Huggs is doing something right If you watch his team, it’s pretty physical and I respect physical ballplayers. Two things make a good defensive team. They are physical and they talk, they communicate. I know one thing, Huggs’ teams can be pretty physical. I think it goes a long way with me, what he’s doing. His players are very motivated and he’s doing something to keep them motivated. Terrible golfer though?

Kintner: Terrible golfer? But he does smoke cigars. Rick Patino

Peterson: When I was starting in coaching, I read a lot of his books. I admire/respect what he did and I’ve taken some of the things he does as a coach and tried to put them towards what I do. You can just tell he loves the game. He’s really intense

Kintner: Oliver Purnell

Peterson: Class act is what I call Oliver. He carries himself well. I feel like nothing’s really going to rattle Oliver. He’s always going to be under control, not going to let anything rattle him. I think that’s a good sign in a coach.

Kintner: Seth Greenberg

Peterson: Opposite ends. (Laughing) He is a guy that really gets after it. A real competitor. You know you can find out a lot about these guys when you play golf with them, do things off the floor with them and things are different. Seth’s a very strong competitor. He’s been around a while and I really respect what he’s done.

Kintner: Thad Matta

Peterson: Interesting talking about Thad. I was at Appalachian State, as a head coach, he was an assistant at Western Carolina. Didn’t know who the guy was at all, had no clue. Then I saw he went to Butler, I believe, as an assistant and then to Xavier to be head coach. Just over the years, the things that he’s done creates excitement for me. He’s doing some good things. I don’t know Thad that well but I’ll tell you what, if he wrote a book or something when he’s done, that would be one to read because he’s doing tremendous. Amazing, I was a head coach and he was an assistant at Western and now he’s the head coach at Xavier, one of the top 10 in the country.

Kintner: Ed Schilling

Peterson: Ed is a close friend and just a tremendous man. If I could raise my son to be like somebody it would be him. That’s probably the highest compliment I could give, I’d want him to be like Ed Schilling. I really would. I have the utmost respect for this guy, just the way he lives his life. I’ve tried to live mine on a similar path that Ed does. He’s just so disciplined. He is such a disciplined person. Boy, when it comes to respecting people, Ed Schilling is right there at the top of my list.

Kintner: Phil Martelli

Peterson: He’s just a fun guy to be around. Loves to talk basketball, loves the game of basketball. I’d call him almost a basketball junkie in a way. Guy just sits there and draws X’s and O’s all over the place and does a good job of doing it.

Kintner: Bruise Flint

Peterson: If I had to take a bunch of guys somewhere and wanted to have a good time for a weekend, golf or whatever, Bruiser Flint would be in that bunch. He’s a fun guy to be around. I spent some time with him recently down at Calipari’s in Memphis just talking basketball. I came out of there impressed by just his basketball mentality. I could see Bruiser being a tremendous recruiter. You know, people talk recruiting but all you have to do to be a good recruiter is have a good personality. Being personable with people is what it takes. Willing to extend a hand, shake a hand with somebody. That’s what the good recruiters, the Calipari’s of the world do, and just talk. Cal’s that hype of recruiter. I gotta figure someway to make money off of him. (Chuckle)

Kintner: I’ve got a fellow North Carolinian for you, David Henderson at Delaware. I was just with him last week.

Peterson: I played against him when I was with North Carolina and he was with Duke. I’m very proud of what Dave has done. He’s done a great job and he’s going to stay successful. He took over a situation that wasn’t easy. They won so many games. He’s doing a great job and will continue to.

Kintner: Let me pull one out of left field, Dale Layer.

Peterson: I was at State and he was at Queens College, coaching there. We talked about playing. Dale went out there and moved himself up. I’ll tell you what, the people working his recruiting, work hard for Dale Layer. He’s going to tell you who all the better players are in the country. He’s somebody who’s a very highly organized person.

Kintner: Tim Buckley

Peterson: Workaholic, a good salesman and a great basketball coach. I look at him, one day being in Big 10 or a power conference. He’s got all the tools that he needs to have in college coaching. If you don’t like going out and speaking to the local Rotary club or getting out and shaking hands with people, at that point, you better get out of college basketball, because you are going to have to do that. Tim Buckley doesn’t mind doing things like that, and that’s what you’ve got to be able to do, sell your program.

Kintner: Now I want to get to the important things in life now. There are people around the country that are going to read this from coast to coast and probably people overseas will be reading it and they all get hungry, so I want you to tell us, what are your top 5 favorite restaurants?

Peterson: Chinese. I’m a big Chinese man. One of the best things that happened here in Knoxville was Sing Chang. (Thinking)………. Golly, I’m going to have to call my wife. There’s a restaurant in Hilton Head that’s right up there on my list. Any kind of like a Morton’s Steakhouse, I like those. I’ll keep working on that.

Kintner: You’ve given me three, and one’s on a beach in Hilton Head, but we don’t know where. Need two more. If someone said we are going to take you out to dinner, we’ll fly you there, we’ll pay for it, where would you go?

Peterson: (Chuckling) This restaurant in Hilton Head, Alexander’s, that’s where I’d want to go. Another favorite of mine locally is Spooky’s, that’s soul food and Rafferty’s, that’s a chain.

Kintner: Now it gets better. What are your 5 favorite cigars.

Peterson: You’ll have to help me with this. I just got a box of them. Montessori?

Kintner: Monte Cristo’s?

Peterson: No, something different. Let’s call the wife, real quick. . . . . Monte Cristo’s, Partagas, Ashtons and Cohiba’s . (after a quick call home) Ok it is Montesino cigars!

Kintner: When you aren’t coaching basketball, what do you spend your time doing?

Peterson: Spending time with our kids, Nicole 10, Olivia 6, and Rob is 4. My real name is Robert. Buzz is just a nickname I’ve always had from a cartoon named Bubba Buzz. My sister’s favorite cartoon.

Kintner: I’ve never heard of that one.

Peterson: It had a bee that flew around all the time. I’ve had it for 37 years now. I just leave it alone. So if I get free time, it’s usually doing something with them. I get little Rob to come to practice so I spend some time there. We bought a boat last summer so we do some boating with one another which is fun. I love golf. I enjoy playing golf. Between family, boating, and golfing, I’m pretty much over here or doing something basketball related or something with the university. I want to pick up fishing a little bit.

Kintner: Have you done fishing?

Peterson: I have once or twice but not much. I wouldn’t mind picking it up.

Kintner: Bob Huggins is always talking about quitting basketball to go fishing. We’ll see if that happens but he is talking about fishing all the time. Maybe you can fish with him? Last question, when you get up in the morning, what excites you?

Peterson: This profession I’ve chosen. I just love basketball, just a tremendous hobby. I love coaching it, and directing my coaching staff and my players to work hard and achieve well in the classroom and on that basketball court. That kind of motivates me. How well competitors are doing and trying to get our team to that level. Almost to the sense that it’s not a nine to five job. Hours are a little bit longer. I’ll tell you, the special person in the whole thing is a coach’s wife. They’ve got to be pretty strong, be people that can handle the kids and handle being alone by themselves because coaches do a lot of traveling. They’ve got to be able to put up with raising kids on their own.

Kintner: Thank you very much for your time. Good luck in the upcoming conference season.

Peterson: Thank you, it was fun.


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