KNOXVILLE — Tennessee wanted to stick with the coach who led the Volunteers program to its greatest achievements. In the end, the university fired Bruce Pearl for too many transgressions away from the court.
Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton said in a statement released late Monday that school officials decided to dismiss Pearl, who has been charged by the NCAA with unethical conduct, after learning of additional violations committed on Sept. 14, 2010, and in March 2011.
“Upon receipt of our NCAA Letter of Inquiry in September, we made the difficult decision to forego common national opinion and forge ahead with Bruce and his staff pending any further major infractions or issues that would preclude our basketball program from representing the University of Tennessee in the right manner,” Hamilton said. “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.”
Hamilton did not offer any more detail on the March violation or incidents not related to the NCAA investigation. He said the search for a new coach will begin immediately and named video scouting coordinator Houston Fancher, a former Appalachian State coach, as interim coach until Pearl’s replacement is hired.
Tennessee will pay Pearl $948,728 worth of salary and benefits as part of his dismissal agreement. His assistants will be paid at their current salary rate through July 31.
Pearl acknowledged in a tearful press conference on Sept. 10 that he had given investigators false information when asked about a cookout at his home attended by high school juniors. The NCAA has since charged the Tennessee basketball and football programs with a dozen violations.
He failed to notify Tennessee of another possible recruiting violation that occurred Sept. 14. Instead, the NCAA informed Tennessee that Pearl had violated its “bump rule” after speaking with a high school junior on a recruiting trip to Georgia that day.
“In September, I said that Bruce Pearl was our coach and I expected him to be our coach for a long time,” UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said. “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.””
Pearl has not commented publicly, but after a 75-45 loss to Michigan on Friday in the second round of the NCAA tournament said that he planned to be accountable for the mistakes he had made but his “goal and desire is to be the basketball coach at Tennessee next year and for a long time.”
In six seasons, Pearl, 51, led the Volunteers to their first No. 1 ranking in 2008, first Southeastern Conference regular season championship in four decades and first NCAA tournament regional finals appearance, missing out on a trip to the 2010 Final Four by a single point.
He amassed a 145-61 record and leaves the school as a popular coach.
An unscientific online poll conducted by The Knoxville News Sentinel after Tennessee received its notice of allegations from the NCAA on Feb. 24 showed 70 percent of the 9,600 respondents still supported Pearl. Fans gathered Sunday in a rally to show support, and Knoxville businesses displayed messages supporting Pearl on Monday.
He promoted Tennessee in a way no other coach had before with antics like appearing at a Lady Vols basketball game with his bare chest painted orange. The fans responded with boosted attendance at Vols games, which prompted athletics officials to upgrade the school’s cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena and build a new basketball practice facility.
Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt responded to Pearl’s chest painting later that season by showing up to a Vols game dressed as a cheerleader. She said Pearl had become a brother-like figure to her and that she would miss him.
“I hope he finds a place that’s right for him, because he’ll keep coaching,” Summitt said. “We’ll always be friends. I’ve really, really enjoyed being around Bruce. Obviously if he can paint his chest and I can be a cheerleader it tells you we have a pretty good thing going here.
Pearl contributed to the Knoxville community in a way his predecessors hadn’t. He led Tennessee’s annual Outlive campaign to raise money for cancer prevention programs and research and endowed a scholarship in the name of former Vol Dane Bradshaw.
He was hired in March 2005 to replace Buzz Peterson, who had gone 61-59 and failed to reach the NCAA tournament in four seasons at Tennessee. Pearl had just led Wisconsin-Milwaukee to Sweet Sixteen and finished 86-38 overall after four seasons.
He spent six years as an assistant at Iowa under the tutelage of coach Tom Davis. It was during his Iowa tenure that Pearl recorded a phone conversation with recruit Deon Thomas about Thomas’ recruitment by rival Illinois. Pearl turned the recording over to the NCAA, which investigated and uncovered unrelated recruiting violations by Illinois.
Pearl also spent nine seasons at Southern Indiana, leading the Screaming Eagles to the 1995 Division II national championship.
Beth Rucker/The Associated Press