June 11, 2010

Peterson set to put down roots in Wilmington

If all goes as planned, Buzz Peterson won't live out of a suitcase for much longer.

At his last stop, the 47-year-old Peterson commuted about two hours one-way from Charlotte, N.C., to the campus of Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. He didn't make the drive every day, sometimes sleeping in his office or an apartment, but he drove that route enough. Living that far from his office never was intended to be a permanent situation.

But for Peterson, uprooting his family and packing and unpacking has been as much a part of his coaching career as mid-week road trips and drawing up plays during a timeout.

When he took the Appalachian State job last spring, he was reluctant to uproot his family while his oldest daughter finished high school. Now, after just one season at Appalachian State, Peterson is on the move again, to UNC Wilmington. He's living out of a suitcase again, but this time, his wife and three children eventually will join him in Wilmington, which is on the Atlantic coast.

In the past 15 years, Peterson has had seven jobs and none has lasted more than four seasons. UNC Wilmington officials hope Peterson will stay long enough to return the Seahawks to the NCAA tournament. Under former coaches Jerry Wainwright and Brad Brownell, UNCW made four NCAA appearances and two NIT appearances. But there haven't been any postseason bids since 2006.

"This is a place where I want to put my roots down, where I want to raise my kids," said Peterson, who also has a 13-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. "We're not having antennas looking around. No, we want to be here for some time."

In the past, Peterson, like most young coaches, had good reason to bounce around. After leading Appalachian State to the NCAA tournament in 2000 in his first go-round at the school, he succeeded Bill Self at Tulsa. Peterson led Tulsa to an NIT title in his only season there before going to Tennessee in 2001. As a reminder that some of Peterson's moves weren't by choice, Tennessee fired him after two NITs in four seasons.

After Tennessee, he spent two seasons as coach at Coastal Carolina, then two seasons as the Charlotte Bobcats' director of player personnel. He returned to the college game and Appalachian State in the spring of 2009, but his second stint in Boone lasted barely a year.

All the moving hasn't been easy financially, especially in a slow housing market. The job-jumping also was a hot topic through the interview process with UNC Wilmington officials and with the media when he was hired.

"I never had intentions to do this," Peterson said. "Every move was to benefit my family and my career. It hurt me bad to leave [Appalachian State] after one year. Bottom line, I have to support my wife and kids. I had to look at that very strongly."

Initially, he didn't have intentions of pursuing the opening at UNC Wilmington after the Seahawks fired Benny Moss on Jan. 29. UNCW athletic director Kelly Landry Mehrtens originally pursued The Citadel coach Ed Conroy, who had worked on Peterson's staffs at Tulsa, Tennessee and Coastal Carolina. Mehrtens offered Conroy the job, but Conroy spurned UNC Wilmington to take the same position at Tulane.

After losing Conroy, Mehrtens turned her attention to Peterson, coincidentally one of Conroy's references. After losing out on Conroy, UNC Wilmington bumped the annual coaching salary to $435,500 to get Peterson. Moss was paid $180,000 last season, while Peterson made about $220,000 at Appalachian State.

The salary also signals a recommitment that UNCW again wants to compete for titles in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Seahawks captured a share of the regular-season title in 2006, but have finished ninth or worse in the 12-team league in three of the past four seasons.

"It is our revenue-producing sport. It's important for us," Mehrtens said. "It was so important for us to get the campus community back. Buzz can get that going for us again."

Peterson has the track record, particularly at the mid-major level. Remove Peterson's lackluster tenure at Tennessee, and he's a combined 164-88 at Appalachian State, Tulsa and Coastal Carolina. Despite that success, he could be in for some lean seasons at UNCW. He will have six seniors in his first season, but the Seahawks went 9-22 in 2009-10. Peterson also said the team fell behind academically after Moss' dismissal in January.

Along with the six seniors, the Seahawks have only one junior and two sophomores among the returning players.

Between recruiting, cleaning up issues in the classroom and turning around a stagnant program, Peterson has his work cut out for him. UNC Wilmington is betting on Peterson to be the right coach for the long haul.

"We're trying to lay the foundation and making sure everyone is accountable for their actions," Peterson said. "I think this job has chance to explode, as it did when Jerry and Brad were here."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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