Tennessee Basketball is bigger than Bruce Pearl. It was true every day of his tenure in Knoxville, it was true on the day he was fired even as most of us raised our voices as loud as we could to keep him, including me. And it has been true every day he's been gone, including this one as he's been announced as the new head coach of the Auburn Tigers.
Tennessee Basketball is bigger than Bruce Pearl. And right now Tennessee Basketball is in the NCAA Tournament. Don't confuse the primary narrative this week.
On one level I'm happy for Bruce, whose punishment was too severe and is clearly an excellent basketball coach. On another level I'm frustrated he's in the SEC, because that means we'll have to deal with him on a regular basis.
But honestly, my gut reaction is relief. Relief because this conversation has dominated this basketball season, which isn't over yet. Tennessee is still playing with its most important game(s) coming this week. And while Cuonzo Martin and these Vols earned some criticism with another slow start, the Pearl conversation became too big too soon, and was always too unrealistic.
Pearl's move today certainly helps the argument he was never coming back to Tennessee this year. So if you're a Tennessee fan, you can certainly stand an applaud him when he returns to Thompson-Boling Arena next year, and you can certainly be disappointed he's coaching another SEC school. But who's to blame for that right now?
Beneath my initial relief is the fear this conversation will return, and once more too quickly. Dealing with Pearl at Auburn is much more than fighting in recruiting and X's and O's. For some Tennessee fans, you'll also have to deal with his ghost. Not the ghosts of the past, which should always be celebrated in Knoxville. But the illusion of the future, that Pearl might still one day return to Tennessee.
If Cuonzo Martin is putting a losing product on the floor, then fine, we'll have that conversation. But how much, exactly, would Cuonzo (or anyone) have to win here to make fans let go of Bruce Pearl? If the Vols make the Sweet 16 this year and then struggle next year, as most predict in a mostly cyclical game? Are these conversations coming right back to haunt us? Will it ever be realistic for the powers that be at Tennessee to hire Pearl again under any circumstance? And what happens when Cuonzo Martin decides he's had enough of this from our fanbase, leaves for another job, and then we have to replace him from a shorter and lesser list of candidates because no one in their right minds wants to coach at Tennessee while Pearl is at Auburn?
I'm sick and tired of chasing Jon Gruden. So are you. Let it go.
The last time we didn't get what we wanted, we got Butch Jones. Cuonzo Martin is certainly a more known element than Butch at the moment, but Cuonzo Martin has the Vols in the NCAA Tournament right now. Your mileage may vary on that great human being, never run afoul of the NCAA, leader of men stuff. But the meter's still running on Cuonzo, and the Vols still have a chance to move forward under his watch. Not just this year, but overall. And if you're a Tennessee Basketball fan, then today you're behind this team and its coach. Not the one who's gone by his own hand. The one who's here now.
Tennessee has a head coach and an NCAA Tournament bid. That's the story I'm most interested in telling this week.