Two Former Tennessee Assistants Blaze A New Path In JUCO

In March, I wrote a story about the astonishing decline of former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. I talked about how in one year’s time, Pearl had taken Tennessee the furthest they had ever gone, reaching the Elite Eight in 2010, to being mired in scandal. Pearl was eventually fired, along with his three assistant coaches. Pearl was the face of Tennessee Basketball for the six years he coached in Knoxville, and with his charisma and outgoing personality making him a hit in the college basketball community, most thought it wouldn’t be long before he was coaching in a position of prominence yet again. And that appears to be happening, with the D-League’s Texas Legends pursuing him hard to be their next head coach.

However, Pearl’s assistants at UT – Tony Jones, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay – were not in the spotlight like Pearl, and their quest to stay at the top was not nearly as easy. Jones has since been named the head coach of Knoxville-area Alcoa High School’s varsity men’s basketball team in July, while Forbes and Shay are now at Northwest Florida State, a junior college located in Niceville, Fla. Forbes was the first of the two to take the leap of faith from the highest level of college basketball in the SEC to the junior college level. When the job at Northwest Florida opened up less than a month after UT’s season ended, Forbes thought the opportunity to be a head coach again, and the structure already in place to win, made the job too good to pass up.

“What attracted me to the job was that Coach Bruce Stewart had built up a nationally prominent program here, and a lot of things were already in place to win,” says Forbes. “The facilities are outstanding and the commitment from our athletic director is unrivaled. He gives me the resources I need to win. The community is behind the program, we have really nice fan support. Also, our school is where people come to vacation. It’s a great location in Florida, its basketball and the beach is what I tell people. It’s a great place to live.

“Also, the Panhandle League is very tough and competitive. We play every team three times, and as a competitive guy you want to be in a situation like this one. I think most importantly I wanted to be a head coach again, and this gave me the opportunity to do that at a great institution.”

Many people might look at Forbes and say, “Is he crazy?” and wonder why he would be willing to move down to the junior college level after working so hard for 23 years to reach the position of high-major assistant coach. Despite the opportunity to be a head coach, most people probably think this move is a step backwards in his career, and puts him back at the bottom of the coaching totem pole. How could a man who was named one of Division I’s top 10 recruiters by Yahoo! Sports be so willing to leave everything at that level behind? For Forbes, the thing that made the decision so easy, aside from the chance to win and be a head coach, was his previous experience working at the junior college level – a time during which he formed some of the most lasting relationships with his players.

“Actually, the closest relationships I’ve had in my coaching career are with the guys I coached in junior college because they are very appreciative of the opportunities they received after they left our program,” he says. “Those are lifelong relationships. The winning is great, the titles are great, and it is fun playing on TV. I’ve been on College Game Day four straight years I believe, but that’s all superficial, quite frankly. The reality of it is, we are in this business to help young guys become men, and I think I have a great opportunity to do that here. It’s probably an even better opportunity to impact these young men that at the Division I level.”

While Forbes was quick to move on and accept the coaching position at Northwest Florida, Shay was not ready to give up coaching at the Division I level as readily. Shay had been with Pearl for the past 10 years and even played one year for Coach Pearl, when he was an assistant at Iowa. He had risen pretty quickly through the coaching ranks, and had a reputation for being one of the best X’s and O’s minds in the business, serving as Pearl’s lead scout at Tennessee. Parting with all that, particularly leaving UT was not easy for Shay. It was clear from talking to him that the wounds from this past year had still not fully healed, and understandably so.

“It was disappointing, frustrating, and it was sad,” says Shay. “We had just taken Tennessee to new heights as far as consecutive Tournament appearances, a deep run in 2010 to make it to the first Elite Eight in school history, three Sweet Sixteens, and the first outright SEC Championship in 41 years. So to leave that, and be fired from that potential of where the program was heading was really tough.”

Despite wanting to remain at the Division I level, Shay did receive heavy interest. He put out a few feelers with friends and colleagues, but never got into serious discussions for a job. Most programs were not willing to go out on a limb and hire Shay after everything that had happened in the past year at Tennessee. In June, Forbes offered Shay a position on his staff. After mulling the decision over with his family, he accepted the job in mid-June, reuniting with his former colleague.

“There was obviously a little hesitancy on my part going from Tennessee down to the junior college level,” says Shay. “I don’t really see this as a downgrade; I see it as another opportunity for me. Obviously it’s not as glamorous or as lucrative as being a high-major Division I assistant is, but I’m still coaching basketball, and that’s what I want to do. I think both Steve and I are at a school that provides great opportunity for kids to come and compete at the junior college level and help them reach their goals. I think if we can attract good players, and continue to showcase our own skills as far as recruiting and coaching, it will maybe help us, or me at least, maybe move to the next opportunity.”

While Forbes and Shay are no longer coaching in Knoxville, the work they did there has already starting paying dividends for them at Northwest Florida. One of the recruits to sign on to play for Coach Forbes was Chris Jones, a top-40 player in the Class of 2011 who had been recruited by Tennessee since high school. Jones remains committed to Tennessee, and there is no question he is a high-major talent at the point guard position, and Forbes described him as “one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever recruited at any level.” However, like with his coaches, Jones is traveling down a road he didn’t initially envision and hopes to use Northwest Florida as a springboard to Knoxville, arriving there as a more mature person and player.

So despite everything they have been through over the past year, and the two different paths they took to the Panhandle of Florida, one thing is clear – after talking to Steve Forbes and Jason Shay, they are focused on making the best out of this opportunity. Neither one probably envisioned leaving Knoxville after the Elite Eight appearance last season, coaching at this level was not in the cards at the time. Niceville wasn’t where they expected to be, but it is where they ended up and plan on winning national championships and shaping the futures of their players. I certainly wouldn’t bet on them failing, in either regard.

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