The winningest era in Tennessee Basketball history is over.
According to Jimmy Hyams from Knoxville radio station WNML, the University of Tennessee has fired head basketball coach Bruce Pearl, six months and one basketball season after a press conference last September which revealed an NCAA investigation into the basketball program. Even though he was working without a contract, Pearl will receive a buyout from the university, the details of which reportedly caused the decision to be delayed through the weekend. Hyams also reports the call was made by university chancellor Jimmy Cheek. If/when there is a press conference, we will update with that information here.
For all of our jokes about timelines, here it is one more time: Pearl committed a violation by hosting a high school junior recruit at his house for a BBQ, then lied about it to the NCAA. Tennessee docked $1.5 million from Pearl's salary, and took him and his assistant coaches off the road in recruiting in staggered amounts, up to a year for Pearl.
But in what will stand as one of the most ill-advised decisions in this entire process, the university allowed Pearl and his coaches to stay on the road in recruiting for two weeks after the September press conference, before the suspensions began. Four days after the press conference, Pearl committed a bump violation with a recruit in Virginia. Though bump violations are very common and considered secondary, the timing and the fact that Pearl did not self-report it - believing it not to be a violation at all - put him in further trouble with the university and the NCAA. Mike Slive suspended Pearl for the first eight games of SEC play this year after finding out about the bump.
As the Vols' season went into a flat spin after a 7-0 start and a blowout win at #3 Pittsburgh, so too did Pearl's future. The public did not learn about the bump violation until the NCAA's letter arrived in late February, and three weeks later athletic director Mike Hamilton gave a radio interview in which he said that Pearl would be evaluated at the end of the season. It is certainly possible that Pearl's future had already been decided at that point, and that the 30 point loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament (which Hamilton's interview certainly had an impact on) nor the massive support Pearl has received from the fanbase over the last 72 hours made any difference in the end.
So here we are now at the end. And if Pearl's first five years brought the greatest joy Tennessee Basketball fans have ever known, this ending brings us our greatest tragedy.
It's not a tragedy simply because Pearl is gone - it remains to be seen what the NCAA will do to the program, especially now that Pearl is out. It remains to be seen, and will be discussed here and everywhere over the next several days/weeks, who the Vols will hire next, and what kind of job he will do. We may look back in a few years and see exactly how far we have fallen. Or we may look back with great appreciation for the good job the next guy is able to do.
But this is tragic because the whole situation was so unnecessary. Bruce Pearl is responsible for Bruce Pearl, and at the end he is no longer the coach here because of his own actions. Obviously the two violations were wrong, but had Pearl just been honest, it seems likely the Vols would have been dealing with only secondary violations.
It's tragic because even though Pearl will be labeled a "cheater" by some, all of his on-court success is valid. This isn't a situation where we found out after the fact that all of the great moments we've enjoyed over the last six years were tainted because Pearl cheated and affected the outcome. Pearl's record will stand as the best of any Tennessee Basketball coach, ever. One year ago this Friday, we beat Ohio State to make the program's first ever Elite Eight. And one year later, it's over.
The timing of all the events of the last few weeks are tragic - Hamilton's interview killed a team that was playing in the NCAA Tournament. And yet, there have certainly been plenty of rumors (plus Hyams' report today) that this decision was made over Hamilton's head, by higher-ups in the university including Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. It's believed by many that Hamilton fought for his basketball coach, but if that information never fully comes to light, the majority of the fanbase is going to go after Hamilton. Regardless of your opinion of Mike Hamilton, stay classy, Tennessee.
And it's obviously not that Hamilton had everyone's support before last September. But if Hamilton fought for Pearl and still ends up getting outed by an outraged but misinformed fanbase, that too would be tragic.
Tennessee Basketball and Bruce Pearl (and his staff) needed each other. The Vols will go on with someone new and we'll see what happens, but Pearl and his staff will almost certainly receive show-cause letters that will keep them out of the college game for a number of years. Pearl would do an excellent job on television if he so chooses, and having just turned 51, will probably still have his pick of schools when the show-cause penalty is up. I hope none of them are in the SEC.
Tennessee Basketball will go on, but will do so without the coach who stands on tables in the university center and paints his chest for the Lady Vols. Someone else may win here - though it would be an absolute miracle if the next guy pulls off what Pearl did in his first five years - but they will be a different person. The next hire can't be Bruce Pearl, they'll have to be who they are. And hopefully, we will grow to love them.
But we'll always miss Bruce Pearl.