ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida doesn’t have any recent basketball history with East Tennessee State, but Gators coach Mike White has plenty of personal familiarity with his coaching counterpart in the teams’ first-round NCAA Tournament matchup.
When White was an assistant coach at Ole Miss, Steve Forbes was in the same position at Tennessee. They competed on the recruiting trail and in scouting matchups back then.
Now, their teams will compete for a breakthrough NCAA Tournament win as they clash at 3:10 p.m. Thursday inside the Amway Center. Both White and Forbes are in the tourney as head coaches for the first time.
“I thought they had Tennessee rolling. Tennessee was winning a lot of games, so I (was) his counterpart at Ole Miss of course and we’d run into each other a bunch on the road recruiting, and scouted against each other, coached against each other,” White said Wednesday. “And then I recruited his program when he was at, what do we call it now, Northwest Florida State. He did a great job there. (I’ve) always been familiar with his teams … and it’s not surprising the success that they’re having.
“He’s done a terrific job evaluating and recruiting. They’ve got a high-major caliber team and I know they’ll prove that tomorrow.”
Forbes was fired at Tennessee in 2011 as part of head coach Bruce Pearl’s messy exit amid NCAA violations. While Pearl was handed a 3-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA, each of his assistants received a 1-year show-cause.
So Forbes took a head coaching job in the junior college ranks at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Fla., and led the program to the NJCAA championship game both seasons he was there. That led to an assistant coaching offer at Wichita State the next two seasons.
And then ETSU came calling after the 2014-15 season.
Forbes said Wednesday that he didn’t necessarily expect an opportunity like this after the ugly parting from Tennessee.
“It would be hard to say that,” he said. “The day we got fired, no. I cleaned out my office on my birthday. That was a real memorable birthday. I probably thought I would get back to Division I at some point as an assistant. But being a head coach, I’ve got to give (ETSU athletic director) Dr. (Richard) Sander all the credit for that. Sometimes they want to win the press conference and maybe I wasn’t a real sexy hire at that time. …
“Gregg Marshall coming off the Final Four and giving me that opportunity, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. To be at Wichita and go 35-1 and (30-5) and then have Doc give me a call, I probably couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Forbes playfully mentioned that Wikipedia has his record wrong from his time in at Northwest Florida State, shortchanging him a win from what should be a 62-6 mark.
“As a head coach, we’ve got to get every win we can get, all right?” he joked.
The wins have also been plentiful in his two seasons so far at East Tennessee State with the Buccaneers winning 24 and 27 games, respectively, and getting to the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time since 2010.
The No. 13-seeded Bucs are led by senior guard T.J. Cromer, who averages 19.1 points per game and scored 41 in the Southern Conference semifinals. He joined the program with Forbes after two seasons in junior college.
Hanner Mosquera-Perea, a 6-foot-9 senior forward averaging 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, joined at the same time while sitting out last season as a transfer from Indiana.
And Tevin Glass, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, has played for Forbes at Northwest Florida State, Wichita State and now ETSU. He averages 8.9 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Meanwhile, junior guards Desonta Bradford (10.6 PPG) and A.J. Merriweather (8.6 PPG) are among the few holdovers from the roster the season before Forbes arrived. That roster features eight players in all who joined the program as transfers.
“It’s more perseverance than anything,” Forbes said of his and his team’s paths to this point. “We have some guys from the Land of Misfit Toys. If you ever watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you know what I’m talking about. They all need a home. We all have a home here. We all have a story, and we’ve come together for a common goal, though, and that is to win and go to the NCAA Tournament.”
The Bucs’ most notable regular-season win was a 67-65 victory at Mississippi State in December, and they also played Tennessee well in a 4-point loss. Overall, they’ve won 9 of their past 10 games.
Beyond just the familiarity of the head coaches, White says he sees two teams similar in style, length, speed and experience that won’t throw many surprises at the other.
And he means that as a strong compliment.
“They’ve got an SEC staff. All these guys worked for Coach Pearl at Tennessee. And they’ve got SEC players,” White said. “They’re very good. This is going to be like a league game for us.”