Should Tennessee fans root for Bruce Pearl in Final Four or keep wondering what could have been? That's debatable
This is a bittersweet week for Tennessee basketball fans.
The Vols were supposed to be a Final Four team according to many analysts. However, UT was bounced in the Sweet 16 by Purdue last week. That means the Vols hold a dubious distinction. Only three teams have been to the NCAA Tournament more times without a Final Four appearance than Tennessee. The Vols have made the NCAA Tournament 22 times but have no Final Four banner to show for it.
That, however, isn’t the reason this week feels so odd for the Vols’ faithful. Not making the Final Four is nothing new, even when they field an ultra-competitive team. Been there. Done that.
The knife twisting is taking place to the south on The Plains. While the Vols are bidding farewell to their seniors — and possibly some talented juniors — Auburn is heading to the Final Four for the first time. And in case you haven’t been paying even remote attention to college basketball for the past decade, here’s some painful news for the UT faithful: Auburn is being led to a possible NCAA basketball championship by former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. Ouch.
So what is a Tennessee fan to do in such a conundrum? On one hand, UT fans can root for Pearl — and many will. After all, it seemed the majority of Tennessee fans weren’t pleased with Pearl’s forced departure amidst an NCAA investigation. The common defense of Pearl is that he only committed a secondary violation and Tennessee didn’t stand by him. It goes a bit deeper than that.
Pearl allegedly lied to UT’s administration and the NCAA about illegal contact with a prospect before being dismissed by former athletic director Mike Hamilton in 2011. The Vols tried to stand by Pearl even when the SEC suspended him. However, it became obvious that Hamilton and UT became incredibly uncomfortable by the ongoing situation and eventually fired Pearl. If Pearl lied to an employer and a regulatory agency, that is always cause for termination. Having the NCAA snooping around is also never a good thing. UT enjoyed basketball success under Pearl, but clearly Tennessee is — and always will be — a football school. UT didn’t want its football program within a million miles of the NCAA. No school would.
Had UT decided to endure the NCAA’s 3-year show cause that Pearl was handed, there would have been other issues. Could UT convince the NCAA that Pearl was worthy of being retained? Just how much could Pearl recruit, especially off campus, during the show-cause period? While it was certainly not a popular move, there was clearly reason for UT to make the change. Yet Pearl, as he’s done before in his career, persevered and survived. Now, he’s in the Final Four.
It’s hard not to imagine what might have happened had Pearl had UT’s full support throughout his three-year show cause. There’s one coach off Pearl’s Tennessee staff that believes things would have gone swimmingly.
Former Tennessee assistant coach Tony Jones said he firmly believes that the Vols would have made 2 or 3 Final Fours had they remained at UT.
The comments, which were broadcast on NoogaRadio 92.7 on Monday, could seem self-serving by Jones, but they’re not unrealistic. That level of success seemed very attainable before Pearl’s departure. Pearl proved this season that he can get a team to the Final Four. Pearl made the NCAA Tournament in each of his 6 seasons at UT. He also made the Sweet 16 twice and got the Vols to the Elite Eight in 2009-2010.
In a recent poll during “The Dave Hooker Show,” 65% of UT fans surveyed said they will root for Pearl in the Final Four. Clearly, there’s still plenty of love for Pearl despite how his divorce with the Vols unfolded.
The affinity for Pearl is probably exacerbated by the fact that the Vols fell short of the success they longed for. The Vols are under solid leadership under coach Rick Barnes. However, UT falling in the Sweet 16 as Pearl and the Tigers move on is the ultimate kick in the gut.
It’s an individual decision as to whether Vols fans will root for Auburn. However, it’s nearly impossible not to wonder what might have been had Pearl never been forced out by UT. If Barnes can’t have more tournament success than he’s had in the past, Pearl’s departure will continue to haunt UT’s fan base for years to come.