KNOXVILLE — Bruce Pearl took Tennessee’s basketball program to new heights in his six years as coach of the Volunteers, from a school-record six straight trips to the NCAA tournament and three Sweet 16 appearances to the school’s first trip to the Elite Eight last season and a Southeastern Conference regular-season crown three years ago.
But his troubles with the NCAA ultimately became his undoing as UT fired him and his staff Monday.
“We have reached an agreement with Bruce Pearl that will result in him and his immediate staff being relieved of their duties,” UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said in a statement. “This is a difficult day for many obvious reasons.
“The dynamics of our case with the NCAA have evolved further, including additional violations committed on Sept. 14 and in March 2011. The cumulative effect of the evolution of the investigation combined with a number of more recent non-NCAA-related incidents have led to a belief that this staff cannot be viable at Tennessee in the future. Therefore, it is in the best interests of our institution to move in a different direction.”
Pearl and assistants Tony Jones, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay were charged in an NCAA Notice of Allegations sent to UT last month for illegal recruiting contact and providing false and misleading information to NCAA investigators last June.
After admitting to the violations in a September news conference, UT terminated Pearl’s contract and imposed penalties on Pearl and his staff, docking Pearl’s pay $1.5 million and barring the staff from off-campus recruiting for various lengths of time. SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended Pearl for the first eight league games this season.
But Pearl and Jones violated the bump rule with a high school junior four days after the news conference, which was the only violation in the Notice that wasn’t previously known.
“It’s just the business, I guess,” freshman point guard Trae Golden said.
Hamilton and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek voiced their support for Pearl in September and hoped for Pearl to remain at UT. But Hamilton wavered in that support for the first time publicly in an interview last week with Knoxville radio station WNML, saying he wasn’t sure Pearl would be UT’s coach next season.
“Sorry Vol Nation it had to end,” associate head coach Tony Jones wrote on Twitter on Monday night. “I have mad respect for everyone and I mean everyone from administrators to student managers who have been part of our success.”
Pearl will be paid his current salary through June and $50,000 a month from then until June 2012, a cumulative total of $948,728. The assistant coaches will be paid their respective salaries through July.
“In September, I said that Bruce Pearl was our coach and I expected him to be our coach for a long time,” Cheek said in a statement. “I am disappointed with the events that have brought us to this point today, events that I would call ‘the cumulative effect of evolving circumstances.’ Since our September news conference, several instances have occurred that have caused us to change our position, as indicated in Mike’s comments.”
Houston Fancher, who spent nine seasons at Appalachian State before joining UT’s staff as the coordinator of video scouting, was named interim coach.
The fallout from Pearl’s firing could be significant. In addition to graduating five senior contributors, freshman Tobias Harris and junior Scotty Hopson — the Vols’ two leading scorers this season — could both enter the NBA draft.
UT’s two signees for the 2011 class — guards Kevin Ware and Chris Jones — could also ask for releases from their Letters of Intent. According to multiple reports, Ware has already requested his release.
“(I) was loyal to my commitment but (it’s) been stressful on me (through) all this so I decided to open my recruitment back up,” Ware wrote on Twitter.
Players on the roster also could transfer, though which ones likely won’t be known until a new coach is hired.
“I don’t know what’s next. Hopefully those guys will make the decision that’s best for them and their families and we’ll see what happens,” said Melvin Goins, who just finished his senior season.
“This decision is an institutional decision, with counsel and input from many who know and love this university,” Cheek said. “Going forward, I am confident that Mike Hamilton will find the right coach who can build on the foundation created over the past several years. Mike Hamilton has my support. I join him in looking forward to continued success.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...