Pearl out at Tennessee, sending Vols down long road to recovery

Ryan Greene

As expected, Bruce Pearl was fired by Tennessee on Monday afternoon.

And now the long road back to hoops prominence begins yet again for the Volunteers, who have a basketball program that's suddenly in bad shape, an athletic director in Mike Hamilton who is on shaky ground himself, and a tarnished image.

The Vols were body-slammed by Michigan, 75-45,  in their NCAA tournament opener on Friday morning. Freshman forward Tobias Harris afterward even said that at a point in the gruesome second half, his team quit. It was the end of a disappointing 19-15 season that was filled with distractions.

It was a steep fall from grace for Tennessee, which a year ago advanced to its first Elite Eight and narrowly missed a Final Four berth.

The slide began back in September, when Pearl acknowledged recruiting violations, which included hosting high school juniors at his home for a barbecue, then providing false information during the subsequent NCAA investigation. The result was a substantial salary reduction, an eight-game suspension at the start of SEC play and off-campus recruiting restrictions.

However, just four days after he had a tear-filled press conference on Sept. 10 to own up to his wrongdoings, he and assistant Tony Jones committed another violation by having an impermissible conversation with another prep prospect.

Pearl was 145-61 in six seasons at Tennessee, including NCAA tourney berths each year. He's painted his torso and stood in the UT student section during women's basketball games, and brandished the same likable personality that made him such a hot coaching prospect while at UW-Milwaukee.

But the past six months were too tough to ignore, and Tennessee was ultimately left with no choice but to move on. Pearl got out of control and this was the only way to stop the vicious cycle. {YSP:MORE}

Pearl will likely coach again, as he's turned around multiple programs without winning histories and made them relevant. Someone will take the bait at some point down the road; for him to defy the NCAA again would be the height of stupidity.

As for Tennessee, it loses six seniors off of the current roster, and you'd have to assume there's a good chance that its top two scorers — Harris and junior guard Scotty Hopson — might not stick around for the aftermath of this mess. Harris' father already confirmed that his son will, at the very least, test the NBA draft waters.

With all things considered — including the lack of a talent-rich, built-in recruiting base —   the job simply isn't attractive enough right now for Tennessee to have hopes of luring a big name away from another program. The hire will likely have to be a mid-major prospect, which certainly worked for awhile the last time UT tried that route.

Two names fitting that description that you should expect to hear about over the next few weeks are Chris Mooney (Richmond) and Shaka Smart (VCU).

Both will lead their teams into the Sweet 16 this weekend in San Antonio, and both have likely coached their way into a promotion to a more high-profile gig and a big raise. But Tennessee's problem is that guys like Mooney and Smart still might be better off staying put or being patient for something else — such as the very tempting Georgia Tech opening.

An inspiration to both could be Butler's Brad Stevens, who many thought would have a tough time turning down jobs at big-name programs after leading the Bulldogs to the national title game last spring. He stayed, got paid and now has Butler back in the Sweet 16.

In hindsight, you can't blame Tennessee for taking a chance on Pearl. It was a good hire and the right hire at the time.

But now, the Vols will likely be paying for the fallout from his transgressions for years to come.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.