Vols donors, fans regret Pearl's fall

Vols donors, fans regret Pearl's fall

March 22nd, 2011 by David Uchiyama in Sports

Coach Bruce Pearl

Coach Bruce Pearl

Sports fans always speak their minds.

Some will do it with money - buying tickets, donating $1,000 or so or even enough for a building named in their honor.

Thousands more speak among themselves face to face, over the phone, on various message boards, or in 140 characters or less on Twitter.

Tennessee fans have been speaking loud and often in recent days about former basketball coach Bruce Pearl. They've been chatting about the future of the team and the athletic department overall under the direction of Mike Hamilton.

Few argue about the facts.

Pearl lied to the NCAA last summer and paid a price - a $1.5 million reduction in salary and an eight-game SEC suspension. But he also had vaulted UT into a nationally recognized program that averaged 18,952 fans per home game.

The fans have different opinions on whether Pearl should have been fired, when he should have been fired and whether Hamilton should be fired as well.

After all, Pearl guided UT to the NCAA tournament in each of his six seasons, climaxing last year with an Elite Eight run last year, but he directed a frazzled team that fizzled out this year with a 30-point loss to Michigan.

"I love Bruce Pearl's energy and his commitment, and he's a good guy and I hate that it has to end this way," said Chattanooga businessman John "Thunder" Thornton, who donated funds for the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center. "I think the bigger problem is his boss.

"[Hamilton] cut the legs from Phillip [Fulmer], and he did the same thing to Bruce. I cushion that by saying Bruce made mistakes."

Lying to the NCAA is a big mistake, and that's what Pearl did after NCAA investigators inquired about a cookout that high school junior recruits attended at his home - a violation. In September, Pearl held a tearful news conference in which he admitted his indiscretions.

"I can't believe the man lied about a photograph [taken at the cookout]," said Rockwood High School coach Paul Kamikawa. "To me, that's a secondary violation and not worth lying about. I don't think it's been handled right from day one."

Cleveland businessman Mark Smith, who is a significant donor as well as a season-ticket holder for UT football and basketball, said the violations, investigations and handling of both have been "a national embarrassment."

"He should have been given another chance," Smith said. "This whole thing has been badly mishandled. If they were going to fire him, they should have done it before the season started. This hasn't been fair to the kids."

The season is over for the players. For Pearl, his tenure is over. For Hamilton and the basketball program, the future is unknown.

"It's up to Chancellor [Jimmy] Cheek," Thornton said. "I know what I would do if I was him, but I'm not. If Hamilton is the athletics director, how will any great coach seriously be excited about coming and working under his direction?

"I believe the university is going to be handicapped as long as the new coach reports to Hamilton."

Charles Gilbreath watched nearly every Tennessee basketball game this season. Some he caught from the comfort of his couch, and others were playing on the big screens behind him as he tended bar at Buffalo Wild Wings.

"I always pulled for them, but they weren't a well-known team so I used to be a North Carolina fan as a kid," said Gilbreath, a UT-Chattanooga alum. "Then about 2004, 2005, I became a Vols basketball fan. He's very good and exciting, and great at marketing, and brought in a lot of fans.

"But I guess a lot of fans will jump off the bandwagon and become UNC or Duke fans again."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.