Since the retirement of the legendary coach Ray Mears in 1977, Tennessee basketball had largely been a joke for nearly 30 long years. Then something happened.
Tennessee hired a coach who got it. He came in and took all the talk about Thompson-Boling Arena being too big, and made jokes about it not being big enough. He stood on tables begging students to come watch his product.
He took a team that had been beaten down the year before and won the SEC Eastern Division Championship with them. He gave the Volunteers Dane Bradshaw, a kid who had been crushed by the fan base because he wasn't Lee Humphrey, and made him the ultimate fan favorite.
When Bruce Pearl arrived in Knoxville, he said that he didn't want the other schools to like him. He said that if they liked him, it meant they were beating him.
Well, it didn't take long until all of UT's opponents hated him, especially Kentucky. He was colorful, he was fun and he was one of the Vols' own, adopted into the Big Orange family, a Jewish Yankee from Boston who relocated from Milwaukee and married into the culture of East Tennessee.
Year after year Pearl got the Vols into the the NCAA Tournament—six straight times, in fact—the most in the SEC by far over that time and a school record. He took Tennessee to the Elite Eight—the furthest any UT team had ever gone.
He opened up events to the fans. They have hats and posters signed from his basketball fan appreciation events. He visited hospitals. He did charity work like no other coach any have ever seen.
Fans of his from the schools he formerly coached joined Vol Internet chat rooms to keep up with him. They love him to this day.
He pulled back the curtains at the arena. He became Tennessee basketball.
Pearl isn't bigger than UT basketball, just like Roy Williams isn't bigger than UNC basketball, but Pearl resurrected the basketball program on The Hill and blazed a new trail of success.
Bruce has been the greatest ambassador any school could ever want. He made a mistake by lying to the NCAA. And now will he be dispatched like he is nothing?
Perhaps if Tennessee keeps him, they will get a postseason ban for a year or two or maybe he is suspended for a year or two. If they fire him, it could take another 30 years to replace him, if ever. Athletic director Mike Hamilton, with a few large donors behind the curtain like the Great Oz, might well be driving the Vol basketball fortunes right off the cliff and back into irrelevance.
If ever a coach deserved a second chance, it is Pearl. If ever a coach needed his school to back him, it is Pearl. If ever a coach should have some equity built up, it is Pearl.
Apparently, however, the fear of a tough NCAA penalty might outweigh six straight NCAA tournament appearances, numerous charitable works and the wishes of pretty much the entire fan base statewide and nationwide. A poll taken by the Knoxville newspaper this week showed that Pearl had a 92 percent approval rating.
The true fans, the ones who actually buy the season tickets and go to the games instead of just watching on TV, realize what will take place. It will be basketball genocide, relevance suicide.
Ticket sales could easily plunge from 20,000 per game to 6,000 as they did with some of Pearl's predecessors. Try selling those new luxury box seats when that happens. Your top salesman will be gone and the emperor will be wearing no clothes.
It is a sad day to be a Vols fan. The school administration seems to have forgotten the dark past and may turn their back on the best they ever had.
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