published Saturday, March 19th, 2011

Wiedmer: Was whipping by Wolverines last stand for Pearl?

COLUMN

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—“We just didn’t play with any heart out there,” Tennessee freshman forward Tobias Harris said when asked to explain the Volunteers’ 75-45 NCAA tournament loss to Michigan on Friday afternoon. “We just quit.”

Happy 51st birthday, Bruce Pearl. Too bad it couldn’t be a gag gift. Instead, this was the last thing the UT coach needed if he expected to mount a grassroots campaign to hold tight to his job.

Fans understand being overmatched. Fans might even understand being fatigued or frustrated, especially after athletic director Mike Hamilton pretty much threw Pearl under the bus on Wednesday, saying, “We’ve done a lot of soul searching about the direction of our program.”

We’re still checking out rumors that Hamilton’s been known to pop the balloons at his kids’ birthday parties before they arrive or to steal the candy from his yard before an Easter egg hunt.

But regardless of what the Big Orange Nation thinks of Hammer-brain, it just doesn’t understand not playing with heart. It really doesn’t understand quitting. So Pearl’s now in a jam more than ever. He’s just lost a game by the widest margin of his six seasons in Knoxville. He’s just failed to win 20 games for the first time at UT.

And because of all those firsts, for perhaps the first time since he brought UT back from the basketball dead, the fans may now be considering the positives rather than the negatives of life without Pearl.

“Obviously, it didn’t help,” the coach said about his impending evaluation with Hamilton. “I didn’t help myself in that regard.”

But did it really matter? Wasn’t Pearl all but out the door long before this because of his lying about NCAA recruiting violations? Could Hamilton soon follow, if for no other reason than that many UT fans, fair or not, will perceive that his ill-timed remarks contributed to this embarrassing afternoon against a Wolverines team the Vols were actually favored to beat?

“I hope the body of work — I don’t think the people of Tennessee are evaluating me based on whether or not we won or lost this game,” Pearl said.

And perhaps that’s fair. As senior point guard Melvin Goins softly said, “It was a tough, tough season, up and down — lots of adversities we had to face. Just tough, man.”

In some ways, this was the perfect microcosm of a decidedly imperfect season. Much as they ran off to a 7-0 start in the won-lost column this year, the Vols jumped out to a 23-17 lead 12 minutes into the opening period Friday.

In much the same way that 7-0 record became a 10-6 question mark after two SEC games, the Vols faltered by halftime, trailing 33-29. Then came the second half, which fairly resembled the collapse Pearl oversaw when he returned from his eight-game, SEC-mandated suspension for his NCAA issues.

UT was outscored 42-16 in that final period, the offense of UM coach John Beilein possibly sending Pearl on a beeline to the unemployment line. It certainly once more underscored the problems of a team that allowed its last three opponents to shoot over 60 percent from the floor in the final half of each game, including the Wolverines’ 64 percent Friday.

Even Pearl admitted afterward, “When you get beat 42-16 in a half of basketball, we didn’t play with heart.”

He appealed to the soft heart of UT fans who justifiably remain steadfastly behind a man who has done far more good than bad since arriving in Knoxville in the spring of 2005.

“We will have six seniors graduating this year. Three of them have already earned their degrees,” he said. “We’re fifth in the nation in [home] attendance. ... Our kids have been very well received in the community. ... I think our program is on very solid footing.”

And maybe it is. But it hasn’t really looked that way since Pearl began serving his suspension.

You could even argue that nothing’s seemed quite right in Pearlsville since Jan. 1 of 2010, when four players — including senior star forward Tyler Smith — were pulled over in the middle of the day in a car containing guns and drugs.

Whatever image the Vols had before that New Year’s Day, the image since has been a tarnished one. Not much that’s happened since then has returned any shine to Pearl’s once bright image.

“My goal is to be the basketball coach at Tennessee next year and for a long time,” he said.

If that goal isn’t met, it may be because Pearl saved his worst for last.

about Mark Wiedmer...

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 ...

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