Every day for the last two months, I feel like we've been waiting for something like this. When the story initially broke on September 10, we were told that Bruce Pearl was guilty of inappropriate contact with recruits, and that he misled the NCAA when asked about it. The nature of the self-imposed penalties, however, suggested there was more to this story - Pearl was hit with a 1.5 million dollar reduction in salary, and he and his assistants were taken off the road in recruiting in staggered amounts, with Pearl getting a full year on the bench.
It was a suspension without the suspension - dock Pearl essentially a year's pay, take him off the road completely, but allow him to continue to serve as the head coach. From day one, that's the message Tennessee has sent: Bruce Pearl is our basketball coach.
Tennessee's administration - most importantly athletic director Mike Hamilton and chancellor Jimmy Cheek (with new university president Joe DiPietro having an unclear level of influence since he accepted the job after this story was out) - has all the information (...I mean, we really hope they do). And with that information, the course of action they chose was to punish Pearl as much as possible without actually suspending or firing him. That's the bottom line: Bruce Pearl is out basketball coach.
Hamilton in particular chose to stay with him because, well, he was kind of all he had. For the record (as much as you can be while speaking in massive generalities), I've tended to be less anti-Hamilton than the majority of the internet Vol community (there's a fun phrase); what happened with Fulmer had to happen, and despite the presence of Lane Kiffin on our campus, the facilitiy upgrades that have taken place under his leadership speak for themselves...and so did Bruce Pearl until September 10. Pearl was the "Yeah but..." to the entire Hamilton conversation. Now that response is muted, and while we've been in a good place with football for the last few weeks and we hope Derek Dooley is the guy, it's gonna take time to figure that part out.
But it wasn't just Hamilton who chose to stand with Pearl, hell or high water or both. It was us.
On September 14, when the story got a little clearer and information came out about the barbeque at Pearl's house that was attended by high school juniors Aaron Craft, Josh Selby, and current Vol Jordan McRae, we asked our readers how concerned they were over Pearl's actions. On a scale of 1-5, two-thirds of our readers voted either 4 or 5, expressing great concern from the majority of our fanbase.
And yet, there is apparently no level of concern great enough to make us want anyone else to be our basketball coach. The Knoxville News-Sentinel is running a poll today in light of the news of Pearl's eight game SEC suspension, asking Vol fans if they still support their head coach. At the time of this post, more than 80% of Vol fans said yes.
Because he's our basketball coach.
And because a significant percentage of Tennessee Basketball fans are Tennessee Basketball fans because he's our basketball coach.
Any good pastor will tell you you can't judge the quality of the worship or the ministry being done in a church by the number of people sitting in its pews. This has been true of UT Basketball as well: in 1999-00, the Vols won 26 games, an SEC Championship, and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in the history of the program. They averaged 15,561 a night. On the other end of the spectrum, the 1993-94 Vols went 5-22. They still averaged 13,030 (to be fair, this number absolutely has to be inflated to some degree), a figure still good for 22nd in the nation in attendance that year. We play in a big building.
Thompson-Boling Arena opened for the 1987-88 season. With a larger capacity than what exists in there today, the Vols drew 20,823 in its inagural year, and 19,313 the following season with an NCAA Tournament team. Then from 1989-90 until Pearl came on campus after the 2004-05 season, Tennessee averaged between 17,524 in Wade Houston's first year, and 12,225 in Buzz Peterson's last.
Here's what the Vols have averaged in Bruce Pearl's first five years, with a slightly diminshed capacity in TBA (all attendance numbers from the UT Media Guide):
- 2006: 17,954
- 2007: 19,661
- 2008: 20,267
- 2009: 20,483
- 2010: 19,168
Because some things are about how much popcorn is being sold.
In five years under Pearl, the Vols have averaged 19,507 per night in Thompson-Boling Arena. In the sixteen years before Pearl, the Vols averaged 14,869. Fuzzy math suggests that at least one-fourth of Tennessee Basketball fans are fans because of Bruce Pearl. This doesn't account for the fairweathers who didn't show up for any of Buzz Peterson's efforts, or the impact Pearl has had on the student section.
TBA opened when I was six, and I've been going to games ever since. Like anything else, those who were on the journey longer appreciate it more; those who were around and involved for Ernie & Bernie have a greater appreciation for Tennessee Basketball than I do. In my lifetime it's been almost two decades of patience, followed by five years of ecstasy.
It's not just that Pearl has won. Jerry Green won for 3.5 years, to the tune of 15,000something every year. What Mike Hamilton knew when he fired Buzz Peterson and hired Bruce Pearl is what he still knows today: Tennessee basketball needs an evangelist. We found a good one, and by God, we're sticking with him.
Evangelists are people too, and we've seen that quite clearly with Pearl over the last few months. But if you're reading here, I don't have to tell you how much he's won in comparison to how little we did before him. I don't have to tell you about beating Memphis to reach #1, winning an outright SEC Championship, being even with Kentucky for the last five years, and ending every single one of them in the NCAA Tournament, having just broken through to the Elite Eight. And I don't make the point about attendance numbers to defend him in the conversation about whether or not he should remain our coach. I make it to show why neither you, me, or Mike Hamilton is having that conversation at all.
Here's the thing: the violation that Pearl committed looks like kid's play compared to what we think is going on around us. Cam Newton is involved in conversations about whether or not someone paid six figures for his services. Pearl didn't pay players. John Calipari leaves a trail of vacated banners wherever he goes (note: this post is not about what John Calipari has done, hasn't done, or hasn't been proved of doing yet. Hugs and kisses, UK fans, we'll see you February 8 with our head coach in tow). Pearl hasn't forged transcripts. And when UT players stepped over the line, Pearl has brought suspension, dismissal, and discipline.
UT fans see a guy who had juniors instead of seniors at his house, and we wonder what the big deal is. That's a slap on the wrist. Then he lied to the NCAA about it, which still goes down as his dumbest move yet (when they showed him the picture and he said he didn't recognize one of his assistant coaches' wives, perhaps they offered to pull out the media guide across the room in his office?). We fans can rationalize that one away too.
What I have been and remain most troubled by through this whole thing is something he can't directly be punished for. In the termination letter from Hamilton to Pearl (ending his previous contract so they could work under a new one), Hamilton brings to light the fact that Pearl told the recruits and their families at the time of the barbeque that their presence would be an NCAA violation, and asked them not to report it.
So among our first contact with these sixteen and seventeen year old kids and their families, all of whom we're trying to get to come to our university, Pearl willingly engaged in both rule-breaking and deception, and invited the recruits and their families to do the same? What kind of first impression or message is this supposed to be? "Send your children to Tennessee, we'll break the rules right away and ask you to lie about it! Woo!"
People who want to take the other side and argue against Pearl and attack his character are making it too hard on themselves. You don't have to get into his first marriage, you don't have to go back over what happened decades ago with Illinois. Just look at what Pearl told those recruits and their families at that barbeque. I don't care how many other people are doing that. That's flat out wrong, and that's the most disturbing character issue on the table.
But the head coach's primary job is winning. Buzz Peterson was the "nice Christian man" who everybody liked, and many argued for him to stay on as head coach after the 2004-05 season, when a team returning everybody regressed and couldn't even get back to the NIT. Here's what Mike Hamilton said the day Peterson was let go:
"Buzz has many of the characteristics we have looked for in a coach, but we were found lacking in the area of wins and losses in a business that measures its success according to such parameters."
Peterson didn't win, so he should've been fired, period.
First comes love. We love Bruce Pearl because he's won, and done it better than it's ever been done at this university.
This is the marriage. This is when it gets hard, and you have to make choices. But make no mistake, boys and girls: we're in it til the end with this guy. Mike Hamilton knows it. And so do we. Unless Pearl decides to pull a Kiffin someday, we've made it clear to the basketball world - to our fans, and to the NCAA - from day one that we're committed to this thing. We made it clear again today: eight game suspension? Bring it on. What if the NCAA brings a one year suspension? Every single indication is that Bruce Pearl will still be our basketball coach.
Because he's gotten the job done. Because winning covers a multitude of sins. Because without him, a significant percentage of us wouldn't care anyway.
Bruce Pearl is our basketball coach. For better, and for worse.