The last six years have represented the most successful stretch of basketball in Tennessee history.
On Monday, that all ended.
With the firing of UT coach Bruce Pearl after six seasons at the helm of Tennessee’s basketball program, athletics director Mike Hamilton and chancellor Jimmy Cheek made what had to be one of the toughest decisions of their respective careers.
They fired the man responsible for a basketball renaissance in Knoxville, an influx of passionate fandom and tournament victories otherwise absent in a hoops program usually billed as a cellar-dwelling roster in the SEC.
Want to win big? Don’t go to Tennessee. That’s what recruits heard, at least until Pearl arrived in Knoxville.
On Monday, amid all the impending NCAA sanctions waiting to strike Pearl and the UT program, Tennessee’s administration made the choice that, in reality, can be largely described as damage control.
Pearl’s transgressions involving the NCAA — that is, providing false and misleading information during an investigation — painted an orange program with a black stroke. The coach who had committed what some called “coaching suicide” years before by reporting unsavory recruiting tactics by opposing schools had, in essence, become just as unsavory himself.
Despite self-inflicting recruiting restrictions and salary deductions on Pearl earlier this season, UT had every reason to believe that further consequences were on the horizon from the NCAA, some as serious as suspending Pearl from coaching for one or two seasons.
Furthermore, after Pearl’s teary-eyed press conference in September in which the coach declared his loyalty to both UT and the NCAA rule book, he committed another violation only days later all but erasing whatever dignity he maintained.
If Pearl’s original mistakes weren’t enough, the post-presser violation made the coach look sleazier than he already did.
Now add all this up. From a consequential standpoint, UT’s decision to let Pearl go on Monday was the correct choice. The coach had stained both his reputation and his school by lying about violations that, in truth, would have resulted in very little harm to either him or the program had they been correctly reported.
But the point is, Pearl lied. He lied when he didn’t have to. Pearl held one of the top jobs in the SEC, a job that Pearl personally pushed to national prominence. Why take such an unnecessary risk?
The reasons behind Pearl’s choices don’t matter anymore. What’s done is done, and Pearl is no longer UT’s basketball coach. Two questions will be floating around UT’s campus for the foreseeable future: Was firing Pearl the right choice, and who replaces him?
Pearl’s on-court success speaks for itself. Six NCAA Tournament bids in six seasons, the program’s first Elite Eight berth and Tennessee’s first and only ascension to a No. 1 ranking.
For the majority of his tenure at UT, Pearl’s teams filled Thompson-Boling Arena with squads proficient in knocking down treys and forcing turnovers. Simply put, it was fun basketball performed by a historically dull program.
But much to the dismay of typical Vol fans, Pearl’s win-loss record and tournament appearances were irrelevant in deciding the coach’s fate. There is no debating Pearl’s effect on UT basketball, but in this situation, the writing was on the wall. The lies overshadowed the wins; Pearl’s decisions came back to bite him.
This much can be said for UT’s decision to let Pearl go: Tennessee has set the standard. Lying to the NCAA, to your school and to your fans won’t be tolerated on Rocky Top. Tennessee fired the most successful basketball coach in school history. The ethical decision prevailed.
Unfortunately for UT, the Tennessee program will, at least in the short term, suffer for this decision. Pearl’s personality and marketing genius made the program bigger off the court than it often was on the court. People believed in Tennessee basketball much like people believe in Tennessee football.
Fans will have a tough time swallowing the latest epic chapter of Tennessee athletics, and the next chapter might not be as pretty. But at some point down the road, UT fans will look back and recognize that not only was the right decision made, but a standard was set.