KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee football fans filed into Neyland Stadium for Saturday night’s Alabama game pretty much the way they always have — hopeful of victory, futilely in this case.
But unlike so many previous seasons, this also has been the year they expect to have a backup plan for Big Orange happiness if the boys of fall ultimately fall short.
“I’ve actually been looking forward to this basketball season, regardless of football,” Knoxville resident James Babington-Johnson said as he entered the stadium. “I’ve been very impressed with Bruce Pearl’s recruits, especially [wing player] Jordan McRae. Of course, he’s ineligible right now, but I think he’ll play. I think all these guys can really help.”
What is less certain is whether Pearl will be around to coach those recruits, now that UT has disclosed he’s working without a contract and that he told a handful of recruits — including McRae — that he was violating an NCAA rule when he entertained them at his house as juniors.
Having previously been guilty of this violation during his time at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl has further complicated his future by lying to the NCAA about the party attended by McRae.
Further complicating the situation is Friday’s announcement of Dr. Joe DiPietro as the new UT president, a hiring that could make Pearl’s future less certain if DiPrieto wishes to enact a zero-tolerance policy on NCAA violations.
“The pressure put on these guys to win can make them do a few questionable things, and sometimes you have to pay a price,” said Greg Jett, a longtime Vols fan from Hendersonville. “But I think Bruce will be coaching and everything will be fine.”
Jett also thinks everything will eventually be fine with the football Vols, despite this year’s slow start.
“They finally made a good pick with Derek Dooley,” he said. “I like his discipline, the way he’s holding players accountable for his actions. We’ve needed that.”
Chattanooga native Henry Oehmig also was looking forward to basketball before the Pearl saga began in September.
“Depends on the outcome of this football season,” said the 30-year-old Oehmig, who now lives in Nashville. “I haven’t given up on football yet, but at this pace we may need basketball to do well.”
This new sense of dependence on UT basketball to salvage Big Orange pride isn’t completely comfortable to fans such as Jett.
“I still love football,” he insisted. “We’re not quite like Kentucky just yet, just kind of waiting for football to end to get to basketball season. But basketball season does look good right now.”
Yet Oehmig also was quick to add, “All this turmoil around Pearl isn’t helping.”
Still, noted Babington-Johnson, Pearl’s troubles do carry a long-term silver lining for Vols fans, whether or not the upcoming season is able to match or better last year’s Elite Eight run.
“No. 1, Bruce can’t leave now,” he said. “No. 2, neither can his assistants.”
Unless, of course, the NCAA or his new school president forces their departure.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...