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  Creating a Buzz

New UT basketball coach Buzz Peterson hopes for a future to match his legendary past.

by Brooks Clark

There's no escaping the first fact everyone hears about Buzz Peterson.

He certainly can't escape it. "It's the 800-pound gorilla in the living room," says Sports Illustrated basketball writer Alexander Wolff. The Fun Fact is both a special gift and a special burden. It helped shape Buzz Peterson as a person and a basketball coach, and it's the source of a collection of stories worthy of Parson Weems. He was close to getting a job in the NBA because of it, and because of it he demurred.

But for the sake of this portrait, let's take the 800-pound gorilla and put it on the shelf for a little while and take it up a few pages from now.

Pinning on the Badge

Buzz Peterson is the 38-year-old, 6'6", new sheriff in Dysfunction Junction (maybe played by Jimmy Stewart). He's the hired gun, back from the flatlands of Tulsa to settle near his home territory on the other side of the Smokies. He puts the star on his chest and steps outside. A bunch of the boys are whooping it up at the Early Round Exit Saloon, and the kid who handles the music box is playing that Rocky Top tune.

Peterson pushes open the swinging doors and steps onto the Orange Doormat. Things grow quiet as folks see his badge. He bellies up to the bar, says, "Afternoon."

"So you're the new lawman," says the bartender.

"Yeah," he replies. "What happened to the last one?"

"Four, you mean—hee hee!," chuckles Gabby from the corner (played by Walter Brennan).

The bartender looks Peterson in the eye and answers: "Well, stranger, you asked me, so I'll tell you. It's like this: They fired DeVoe because they were bored, I guess. They fired Houston 'cause he was too soft and didn't yell enough. But that son of his could play, that's for sure. They got rid of O'Neill 'cause he was a potty-mouthed surly Yankee who said p—- on John Ward's radio show. But he did bring in some hosses. They got rid of Green 'cause he couldn't get anybody to box out or play defense, or hold onto 7-point leads against Carolina in the Sweet 16 with five minutes to go..."

"And he was too dern nice to make Tony Harris play the 2 guard!" pipes in Gabby.

"I'll tell you straight," the bartender continues, rubbing his rag in circles on his bar, "Green's fellas won 20 games and made the Big Dance four years in a row. It just didn't set right when they lost to places you didn't even know were places—Illinois State, Southwest Missouri State, UNC-Charlotte.

"There's four plots up there on Hoops Hill, stranger. And now, I guess there's you."

So what makes Buzz Peterson the man to clean up the streets of Dysfunction Junction? Just like in the movies, two of his deputies took a powder, metaphorically speaking. Veteran guards Harris Walker and Terrence Woods failed drug tests in July and had to be dismissed from the team. "I hated it," says Peterson. "But that's the bottom line. You break rules and there are consequences."

Experienced ball-handlers like Walker and Woods are exactly what new coaches need to make a team play as a team, but so is order and discipline and respect for the team.

These are things Peterson knows because he played at North Carolina and won a national title, under the great Dean Smith. Jerry Green was sold to UT as a member of the Tar Heel Extended Family, having worked at UNC camps and coached with Smith protégé Roy Williams. But—looking back—it seems that Green was too venerable (57 when he left), too kind-hearted, and himself a product of humble circumstances, perhaps too sympathetic to the tough backgrounds of some of his players to exert the tough love needed to turn 18-year-old young men into responsible adults and champions.

The world agrees that, among his virtues, Dean Smith taught discipline, respect for the game the way it should be played, respect for the team above the individual in his many years of glory at Chapel Hill, and this Tar Heel ethic is what pumps through the veins of Buzz Peterson. It's tempting to mention the Fun Fact right here, since it exemplifies how the Carolina ethic can serve a person truly dedicated to greatness. But let's avoid temptation.


When you walk in Peterson's office in Thompson-Boling, there are players sitting on the sofa filling out Time Management sheets for the week. These are grids with every half hour planned. "Punctuality is such a big thing with me," says Peterson. "You've just got to be on time. We schedule things at different times to put the value on time. We do weights at 3:45, conditioning at 4:55. And they better get with my watch. We're on P.S.S.—Peterson Standard Time."

Peterson has the players in etiquette lessons (the same kind he had as a Tar Heel) to make sure Vincent Yarbrough and Ron Slay know which forks to use at a table. Maybe there's a coaching aphorism here: If you take care of the salad and desert forks, taking the charges and working the ball in to the big man will take care of themselves.

"Discipline is doing the right thing when no one is around," says Peterson, coining an old Dean Smithism.

The Vols quickly noticed a difference in their pre-season conditioning. "It's a shock to me, about how much work we're doing in the pre-season," senior guard Del Baker told Mike Strange of the News-Sentinel. "It's actually stronger than that. Those stairs right there [in Thompson Boling Arena]; we ran those stairs three times yesterday, back to back to back. You had to make it in under two minutes, 30 seconds."

"It's a lot of very hard work," said guard Jon Higgins. "I think it's a lot more energetic now. It's time consuming. I don't want to try to sound bad on the last couple of years, but this is what college basketball is about."

The World of Brother Buzz

The tale of Buzz Peterson and his Knoxville connections has all the twists and turns of a Jack Neely column. Born in Asheville, N.C., on May 17, 1963, Robert Bower Peterson Jr.'s had family connections to the city across the mountains. His grandfather, Myron Peterson, spent much of his life in Knoxville. Buzz's great uncle, Ben Bower (as in Bower's Field in Seymour), had a store called Bower's. He helped Myron start a chain of Sky City retail stores based in Asheville. At one point in his life, by virtue of Myron's will, Buzz Peterson owned a stretch mall in Maryville.

Buzz's father, Robert, went to Tennessee Military Institute in Sweetwater, got his business degree from UT in 1959, and eventually took over the family business, which went public and was sold completely in the mid '80s. For the past 15 years, Peterson's mother, Barbara, has worked part-time at a Belk's, mainly to purchase gifts for her grandchildren, but she is enshrined in history in an anecdote—about cheating at Crazy 8's—that will surface when we take up our Fun Fact.

Buzz's sister Cindy gave him his nickname when he was two, inspired by the TV show, The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz. "Buzz was a little bee that used to fly around. That was my sister's favorite cartoon," Buzz explains "The nickname stuck with me forever. I've had it for 36 years and I can't get rid of it."

Buzz and his dad used to drive over the mountains to watch football games and he was excited about the idea of Krystal burgers. "I thought they made them just for me," he explains, "since they were little, like I was."

To complete our Neelyesque theme of Knoxville connections, it's worthwhile to note that growing up in Asheville, Buzz Peterson served as a ballboy for Jerry Green's UNC-Asheville teams, and he still has his "Official UNC-Asheville Ballboy" T shirt.

Before Buzz decided to focus on basketball, his coaches thought he might one day be an NFL quarterback. In his senior year of high school Buzz was named the top basketball player and top athlete in North Carolina, and when he signed with North Carolina, it was a media event. In a book having to do with our Fun Fact, David Halberstam recounts how Buzz's father, Robert, was furious, feeling that it was all too much, too soon for too young a person, and that it would create too much pressure and too many expectations. "He thought they were in danger of stealing part of his son's childhood from him," wrote Halberstam, "and he barked at the media to back off and give the boy some peace—to let him be a boy." Little did father Robert know that his son's connection to immortality was just beginning.

The 800-Pound Gorilla

The special gift and special burden for Buzz Peterson is that he is—and for two decades has been—best friends with the greatest basketball player who ever lived.

To his immense credit, Peterson answers the inevitable questions about Michael Jordan and re-tells his twice-told Jordan stories with good humor, aplomb, and enthusiasm. Like an official ambassador of His Airness, Peterson seems to know what his friend, the personification of excellence, means to all of us. And this best friend is a good reflection on the Great One's taste in friends.

Jordan and Peterson—one from Wilmington on the coast, the other from Asheville in the mountains—formed a bond when they met at a UNC basketball camp after their junior years in high school. Soon after they took a pinkie swear to 1) go to Chapel Hill, 2) room together, and 3) win an NCAA title—all of which they did. But their relationship goes much deeper than that simple tale.

For starters, Jordan started out as something of an underdog. While Peterson was all that and a bag of chips as a high school senior, Jordan, according to mythology, still ached from being cut from his high school team as a 10th grader and from being a teenager so gawky he feared that he would never find a wife and took Home Ec courses to ensure that he would be able to take care of himself. (Michael Jordan was a late bloomer, but he was nowhere near the late bloomer these Weems-like instructives describe. But, hey! You might as well say George Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree if you're going to get picky about the MJ Story.)

It's true that in preseason drills their first fall, Buzz beat Michael in the 40-yard dash, and Jordan's vertical leap was only one inch higher. After Buzz suffered a stress fracture in his foot and missed the first several games, Michael was the freshman who started at small forward for the Tar Heels. During that season, Peterson says, "you could tell Michael was going to be really good."

"That's when I made the decision that I wasn't going to let it affect our friendship," Peterson has said many times. They were in competition, but they could still be friends. "Competition is everywhere. It's a part of everything. You have to be able to compete," says Buzz today.

Buzz and Michael were roommates in the real sense of the word. With basically the same shoe size, Michael made a habit of borrowing Buzz's shoes and stretching them slightly, width-wise. At Optimist lunches, Peterson joshes that nowadays, when he visits Michael's mansion and its barn-size closets, he makes sure to leave with a pair of shoes.

Buzz got a glimpse of Jordan's now-famous competitive drive when they visited Peterson's home and played cards with Barbara Peterson. Somehow, Michael secreted an 8 during a game of Crazy 8s. "I couldn't believe it!" says Buzz. "My roommate was trying to cheat my own mom!"

Of course, it was freshman Michael who took and made the title-winning last-second shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game—basically the same clutch shot he's made again and again, including the one that won his 6th NBA title and ended Part II of his NBA career.

During a game in February of his sophomore season, Peterson tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. From his hospital bed, Buzz watched Michael rally the Tar Heels from a 16-point deficit, win the game with a soaring dunk, and say in a postgame interview, "I miss you, buddy. I wish you were here." Before Carolina's next game, Michael took a sweatband and pulled it midway up his left forearm—a quiet way of remembering Buzz's misfortune. "Though Peterson would return the following season," writes Alex Wolff in his upcoming book, Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, "he was never the same player, and in some ways never the same person. And so it was symbolic that Jordan wore a sweatband in the same place for the rest of his career. Whenever Buzz saw kids on the playground wearing their sweatbands just so, he thought to himself, 'If only they knew.'"

By the time they were juniors, Peterson knew his roommate was going to be "a good NBA player." During that season, Peterson was losing playing time and drifted into a period of self-pity. As recounted in David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, Jordan was the only one who gave it to Peterson straight: that he was using the injury as a crutch. "You're missing something," Jordan told Peterson. "I feel like I can take my fist and hit where your heart is and my hand will come out the other side." At the time Peterson thought Jordan was wrong, but later he decided that, yes, there had been a tentative quality to his game—an almost unconscious fear of being hurt again.

"Now I look back and ask myself why I was like that," says Peterson in Wolff's book, "and I wish I could have that opportunity one more time. I know I'd handle it better. Michael always said, 'Fear of failure will lead you to despair.' And if you played with him, you knew he wasn't a bit afraid of failure."

At one point during that season, writes Wolff, "[a]n aunt fell fatally ill and Peterson left campus suddenly, telling no one but Jordan where he was going. The Tar Heel coaches were worried enough to alert the state police. Buzz had left his room a mess, but when he returned three days later he found everything tidied up—every sweater neatly folded, every shirt cleaned and ironed."

One day in the early '90s, when they were adults on a golf course in Chicago, Buzz made a confession. "Just because I'm your friend, he said, it doesn't mean I can't this once make like a fan and tell you what I think you've accomplished is just mind-boggling."

Jordan added a confession of his own. "Buzz, you helped make me what I am. When you came out of high school, you were it. When I left Wilmington I had one goal, and every day freshman year I told myself the same thing: 'I have to be better than Buzz.'"

"I wish he'd told me that then," says Buzz. "So I could have said, 'I have to be better than Michael.'"

Keeping an Even Latitude

After North Carolina, Peterson was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers and tried pro ball in Belgium. One day in 1986, Peterson was back home in Asheville, eating lunch with a friend, where at another table he saw Jan Maney, herself dining with a friend. They talked a little. She said he looked better in person than he did on TV. "I said, 'You're better looking than anything I've ever seen on TV.'" They dated for three years and were married in 1990. Among the ushers were Jordan and the Vols' highly thought of assistant coach Chris Ferguson, with whom Peterson had been an assistant coach at Appalachian State and with whom he was pleased to be reunited last March. Buzz and Jan have three kids—Nicole, 9, Olivia, 5, and Rob, 3.

Both Jordan and Peterson majored in geography. This has come in handy during Peterson's coaching hegira, which has taken him from Boone, N.C., (Appalachian State), Johnson City (ETSU), Raleigh (N.C. State), Nashville (Vandy), Boone again for his first head coaching job, then Tulsa, and now Knoxville.

"At least I kept basically the same latitude," notes Peterson, whose teams' successes and sound, hustling play caught the eye of the ever-active UT Search Committee. He flew in for a visit, got onto the Pellissippi Parkway, looked east and saw the Smokies. "I knew I was home," he says.

Respect & Discipline

In his first press conference as UT's coach, Buzz listed his four key points of emphasis —each one touching an issue that had driven UT fans to despair, even amid their 20-win seasons.

Discipline. "Coach Smith taught me that to have a successful program you must first have discipline, that your student athletes treat other people with respect and dignity." That starts with being on time.

100 percent effort, all the time. One frustrating characteristic of recent Vol teams was that they would play like gangbusters one night—say, whipping Kentucky at home—then be completely flat the next. Several players have admitted they were frustrated with the lackadaisical work ethic of some of their teammates last season, and they're relieved to be in an environment where everyone is required to make every class, make every workout, be on time to everything—or run at 6 am.

Team unity. Peterson believes that teams grow together on and off the court, so his teams engage in activities together. Two Sundays ago, the team went to Cokesbury Baptist Church. Before that they visited Children's Hospital. Team-building should be tonic to the consternation of fans who've watched a group that at times played as if they'd never met one another, and whose point guard, the graduated Tony Harris, was once quoted in his hometown paper saying he was tired of all the emphasis on team offense and he was looking forward to getting back to doing his own thing.

Conditioning. Peterson credits those pesky end-of-game collapses—notably against Vandy, and UNC in the Sweet 16—to conditioning. This makes sense. And this is why the first day everyone had to make a 12-minute run, 6 1/2 laps around the track. Junior forward Ron Slay didn't make it the first time. It's not basketball, Slay complained. "It's mental toughness," Peterson explained. After a helpful tip—you pace yourself in the beginning, then in give it everything in the last couple of laps—Slay made it and started shaving time off.

"We're getting there," says Peterson of the team's physical conditioning. "But we're not where we want to be."

Peterson has been drilling the Vols on what to do in those situations—like UNC and Vandy—so they'll be better prepared to avoid falling into chaos in those clutch minutes.

OK to the Headband

With the departure of Tony Harris and dismissal of Walker and Woods, the new point guard is Thaydeus Holden, a JC transfer from Seward County (Kansas) Community College. Jon Higgins, a talented junior, is the shooting guard, with Yarbrough at small forward and Slay at power forward.

The projected center, 6'10", 230-pound forward Marcus Haislip, was declared academically ineligible for the first semester of this year. Haislip was distracted from his studies last spring during the changeover from Green to Peterson. "That happens a lot in transitions," explains Peterson. Haislip is tearing up the pea patch in practice, but for now it's 6'10", 225-pound redshirt freshman Brandon Crump.

In general, Peterson says no to gratuitous affectations, but he has given some thought to Ron Slay's headband. "I will let him wear it for security reasons," says Peterson, seeing the Linus behind Slay's bravado and perhaps bringing to bear a sensitivity to the hidden messages of sweatbands.

Last spring coach Bill Self of Illinois told Buzz that if he could pick any player in the country, he'd take Ron Slay. For all 14 practices they've had, Slay has come to all 14 ready to play—he personifies "100 percent effort all the time." Peterson has talked at length with Slay about the way to act on the floor, how to defer to referees, how to treat opponents. Among Slay's strengths are his enthusiasm and his ability to verbalize, letting teammates know what's up on defense, and so on. On the other hand, it's important not to show anybody up, as Slay can sometimes appear to be doing. Michael Jordan had to learn this lesson once from Dean Smith (after an in-your-face payback dunk), and Slay is learning it now from Peterson. "We talked about it for 15 minutes the other day," said Peterson.

Jerry Green didn't use psychological tests on his players—the way Pat Summitt and car dealers and most companies do—because he felt he didn't need tests to know how to motivate his players. When asked how you coach a great talent like Vincent Yarbrough, Green replied that you just let him play and develop. By all appearances Green stuck with this laid-back approach. After one game in which the team's rebounding and defense broke down, Yarbrough was quoted as saying that boxing out was just not his thing.

Under Peterson, such blue-collar activities as boxing out, rebounding and playing team defense are definitely back in fashion. Two weeks ago Peterson drilled Yarbrough on drawing offensive charges—that is, taking a position in front of an opponent so he'll slam into you and send you crashing to the floor. This doesn't come naturally to Yarbrough, or any rational person, for that matter, but it will be a part of his game this season. Even in that drill Slay busted his lip wide open. "But he took it for the team," says Peterson.

Peterson absolutely intends to use psychological tests, starting with his staff and working down to his players. "As a coach, about 10 to 15 percent of what you do is coaching. You have to be a psychologist as a motivator. You've got 12 men who are motivated differently. I want to know their personalities. I've got to know how hard to push 'em, to make 'em better and get that mental toughness. At the same time, they're kids. We all need some tender loving care. We're a family. We've all got one common goal, to win a championship. I'm tough on them, but I'll be the first one to let 'em know I appreciate them."

"When they do something wrong, he will stomp his foot down," says Chris Ferguson. "When they do something right, he'll hug them. It's called tough love, and he's very good at that."

November 15, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 46
© 2001 Metro Pulse