The University of Tennessee has made the inevitable official. Bruce Pearl was told that he will not return next season as the coach of the men’s basketball team at the university on Monday.
On Friday, Pearl coached his final game for the school, guiding the team to a 75-45 loss to Michigan in their first tournament game.
No Tennessee men’s coach can match Pearl’s six NCAA tournament bids and he owns eight of the school’s sixteen tournament wins all time. In the 2007-08 season, the school rose to the #1 ranking in the polls for the first and only time in the history of the program.
In the four seasons prior to Pearl’s arrival in Knoxville, previous coach Buzz Peterson failed to make the NCAA tournament and had losing seasons in two of his four seasons as coach.
Despite the NCAA rules violations, including lying about a barbeque involving recruits at his home and a secondary violation regarding contact with a recruit following the first violations, Pearl remains extremely popular among the supporters of the program. Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton is going to have a difficult time trying to replace the highly successful and energetic Pearl.
The biggest reason for letting go of Pearl was to limit the penalties that will come down from the NCAA later this year. SEC conference commissioner Mike Slive suspended Pearl for the first eight games of the SEC season. Getting rid of Pearl implies that the university expects more sanctions to come and hopes soften the blow by terminating the cause of the problems, Pearl.
The smart move would have been to be proactive and institute penalties when this season went downhill. Slive actually helped them with this by suspending Pearl for the SEC games. In addition, they could have shown good faith by implementing a one year ban on postseason play a month ago when this team was obviously not going to make a long run in March. That gesture, along with a few other minor penalties, might have been enough for the NCAA to leave their basketball program alone and enable the school to keep Pearl.
This isn’t an easy job, as evidenced by only five NCAA bids in the 22 years prior to Pearl’s arrival. The Vols start every season looking up at Kentucky in the SEC East and also the 2006 and 2007 NCAA champion, Florida, resides in the division as well. The SEC is consistently a 5-6 bid league, but with two bids typically gone in November, that leaves only 3-4 bids for the remaining 10 schools. Enticing a coach to compete in the difficult SEC East with looming sanctions is going to be difficult.
Pearl is far and away the most popular coach in the program’s history. Replacing his energy and enthusiasm will not be easy. While Tennessee is consistently among the top 20 programs in attendance each season, their huge arena, Thompson-Boling Arena, is the sixth largest in Division I at a capacity of over 21,000. Even at 15,000 per game, there are a lot of empty seats. Losing a few more thousand per game could make it even worse in the cavernous arena. Getting a new coach to embrace the challenge of filling those seats will be difficult.
Many of the players have implied that they will not return if Pearl is not retained. Freshman forward Tobias Harris was vocal over the weekend about leaving if Pearl was fired. He’ll probably follow through with leaving now that Pearl has been released.
Who will be the coach to replace Pearl at Tennessee? One has to figure that they won’t be able to get an “A” list coach to take over a program with sanctions. So it will most likely be a mid-major coach who might have some baggage, a former major coach looking for a second chance, or an assistant like current associate head coach Tony Jones, who coached the team while Pearl was suspended for the first eight conference games.
Would up-and-coming coaches like VCU’s Shaka Smart and Richmond’s Chris Mooney be interested? Both are only located a couple hundred miles away in Richmond, Virginia and could be targeted when their teams are eliminated from the tournament. When you have your pick of jobs, like Smart and Mooney will have, why would you take on a situation like Tennessee? Current assistant Tony Jones might be the best pick as he would be able to provide the easiest transition, especially if they are trying to retain their current players.
One thing to keep in mind is that with looming sanctions, the North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, and Arkansas jobs are all better jobs than this one. Basketball doesn’t take a backseat to football at the ACC schools and Arkansas is historically a much better program on the court and supported more by the fans and alumni than Tennessee. Oklahoma is also a major conference team that is looking for a coach and doesn’t provide the obstacles that the Tennessee job offers. The administrators at Tennessee might think they have a great job to offer, but it’s probably not enough to convince successful mid-major coaches to jump in. They might have to settle for a coach on the rebound, like former Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, to help turn this situation around.
Assuming the school is intent on hiring a coach before the NCAA hearing, the new coach will have to blindly sign on with the hope that the sanctions won’t be too severe and that he doesn’t lose any of the returning players. Otherwise, Tennessee could be looking a major rebuilding job that takes years to fix and it might take a second head coach to be hired down the road to complete the job.
The University of Tennessee’s men’s basketball program might look a lot like Indiana’s did three years ago when Tom Crean took over. Crean has failed to have a winning season in Bloomington since being hired. Think about that. That’s Indiana, home of five national championships and a tremendous statewide following and tradition. It could get much worse than that at football centric Tennessee without Pearl.
The University of Tennessee had a choice in this situation. They got greedy and tried to benefit from Pearl’s coaching this season and try to make a final run in the NCAA tournament when self-imposing a one year tournament ban during a lost season would have proven that they were proactive and serious about the violations. That fizzled out and there might only be the charred remains of a once strong program remaining when this is done.
- Brian W.