Tennessee fires Bruce Pearl

Updated: March 22, 2011, 7:54 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee wanted to stick with the coach who led the Volunteers program to its greatest achievements. In the end, the university fired Bruce Pearl for too many transgressions away from the court.

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said in a statement released late Monday that school officials decided to dismiss Pearl, who has been charged by the NCAA with unethical conduct, after learning of additional violations committed on Sept. 14, 2010, and in March 2011.

Tennessee has agreed to pay Pearl $948,728 worth of salary and benefits as part of his dismissal agreement.

"Upon receipt of our NCAA Letter of Inquiry in September, we made the difficult decision to forgo common national opinion and forge ahead with Bruce and his staff pending any further major infractions or issues that would preclude our basketball program from representing the University of Tennessee in the right manner," Hamilton said. "The cumulative effect of the evolution of the investigation combined with a number of more recent non-NCAA-related incidents have led to a belief that this staff cannot be viable at Tennessee in the future."

The non-NCAA related incident, multiple sources told ESPN.com's Andy Katz and Chris Low, was a violation of the Tennessee athletic department substance abuse policy by UT senior forward Brian Williams. Williams missed the last two regular-season games at South Carolina and at home against Kentucky due to what team officials said was a bad back.

Sources told Low that it was ultimately UT-Knoxville chancellor Jimmy Cheek's call to fire Pearl. It's also expected that Cheek will be heavily involved in the search for Tennessee's next coach and will play a leading role on the search committee.

"I care about Coach Pearl and his family. I appreciate the job that he has done at Tennessee," Cheek said in the statement. "From the University's perspective, this decision is an institutional decision, with counsel and input from many who know and love this university."

Associate head coach Tony Jones, who filled in while Pearl served a suspension earlier this season, thanked the fans on Twitter on Monday night.

"Sorry Vol Nation it had to end," Jones wrote. "I love each and everyone of you to the bottom of my heart."

Pearl met with Hamilton on Monday morning, and the parameters of the settlement were outlined during that meeting, the sources told Low.

Later Monday afternoon, Pearl and all of his assistants met with Hamilton for a final time in Hamilton's office for about 20 minutes.

Houston Fancher will serve as interim coach until Pearl's replacement is hired. Fancher is the former head coach at Appalachian State and was the Vols' director of video scouting this past season. The school said the search for a new coach would begin immediately.

"This is a great job and will attract a significant number of interested coaches," Hamilton said. "Much of that interest is a tribute to what coach Pearl has helped to build, but more importantly, what our fans have built. We will take an appropriate amount of time, but will move as swiftly as is effective to bring this to conclusion."

Pearl has been working without a contract since October after his old contract was terminated following the university's receipt of an official letter of inquiry in September from the NCAA. Contractually, Tennessee wasn't obligated to pay Pearl a buyout.

Tennessee officials, including Cheek and Hamilton, had been staunchly in Pearl's corner throughout the season. At one point, Hamilton said the university was prepared to stand behind Pearl even if he were suspended by the NCAA for a year.

But the tide began to shift as the regular season came to a close. Sources told Low there was a growing concern the basketball program would be hammered by the NCAA with severe sanctions if Pearl were still the Vols' coach when Tennessee appeared in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions in June.

Hamilton backed off his support for Pearl last week when he went on a Knoxville radio talk show and said the "jury was still out" on whether Pearl would be back next season as Tennessee's coach. Hamilton said there had been a lot of "soul-searching" on whether that was the right thing to do -- a total departure from his past comments.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneBruce Pearl's last game as Tennessee's coach came Friday in a loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament.

Monday night, Hamilton apologized for the timing of his comments, admitting they became a distraction for a Vols team that was routed 75-45 by Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Pearl's final game as coach.

"While my comments were never intended for harm, they became an unneeded distraction to what has already been a year of distractions," he said.

Pearl said after the game that he planned to be accountable for the mistakes he had made but his "goal and desire is to be the basketball coach at Tennessee next year and for a long time."

In a tearful news conference on Sept. 10, Pearl acknowledged that he had given investigators false information when asked about a cookout at his home attended by high school juniors. Pearl was charged with unethical conduct by the NCAA for misleading investigators and the NCAA has since charged the Tennessee basketball and football programs with a dozen violations.

However, failing to notify Tennessee of another possible recruiting violation that occurred just four days after the tearful news conference may have ultimately caused Pearl to lose the support of his bosses.

Tennessee officials learned from the NCAA in December that Pearl would be charged with a violation of the NCAA's "bump rule" after speaking with a high school junior on a recruiting trip to Georgia on Sept. 14.

Multiple sources told Katz that both Pearl and the school will contest the "bump" violation.

However, it was likely the March incident that tipped the scales against Pearl. On March 6, a source told Katz, Pearl's staff committed a violation in the procedural manner of the player pass list for the home game against Kentucky.

According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the player pass list violation will be treated as a separate secondary violation and not part of the case that the Committee on Infractions will hear in June.

"In September, I said that Bruce Pearl was our coach and I expected him to be our coach for a long time," Cheek said in the school's statement Monday. "I am disappointed with the events that have brought us to this point today, events that I would call 'the cumulative effect of evolving circumstances.'"

The new coach could also be facing a depleted roster by the time he arrives on campus.

Tennessee's star freshman forward, Tobias Harris, planned to test the waters of the NBA draft for a few weeks before deciding whether to return for his sophomore season. Junior guard Scotty Hopson may do the same.

Pearl's departure has already affected Tennessee's recruiting. Kevin Ware, a guard from Conyers, Ga., and one of Tennessee's two incoming freshmen, have asked Tennessee for a release from their commitments. Chris Jones, a point guard from Memphis, had not publicly announced whether he would seek a release.

"Was loyal to my commitment but its been stressful on me going threw all this so I decided to open my recruitment back up," Ware wrote on Twitter on Monday. "At the same time depending on what coach comes in I can definately [sic] consider UT again. Its a great atmosphere."

Pearl, who had a 145-61 record, leaves the school as a popular coach. An unscientific online poll conducted by The Knoxville News Sentinel after Tennessee received its notice of allegations from the NCAA on Feb. 24 showed 70 percent of the 9,600 respondents still supported Pearl. Fans gathered Sunday in a rally to show support, and Knoxville businesses displayed messages supporting Pearl on Monday.

He promoted Tennessee in a way no other coach had before with antics like appearing at a Lady Vols basketball game with his bare chest painted orange. The fans responded with boosted attendance at Vols games, which prompted athletics officials to upgrade the school's cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena and build a new basketball practice facility.

Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt responded to Pearl's chest painting later that season by showing up to a Vols game dressed as a cheerleader. She said Pearl had become a brother-like figure to her and that she would miss him.

"I hope he finds a place that's right for him, because he'll keep coaching," Summitt said. "We'll always be friends. I've really, really enjoyed being around Bruce. Obviously if he can paint his chest and I can be a cheerleader it tells you we have a pretty good thing going here."

Pearl also contributed to the Knoxville community in a way his predecessors hadn't. He led Tennessee's annual Outlive campaign to raise money for cancer prevention programs and research and endowed a scholarship in the name of former Vol Dane Bradshaw.

Pearl was hired in March 2006 to replace Buzz Peterson, who had gone 61-59 and failed to reach the NCAA tournament in four seasons at Tennessee. Pearl had just led Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16 and compiled a 51-13 overall record there after four seasons.

In six seasons, Pearl, 51, led the Volunteers to their first No. 1 ranking in 2008 and first NCAA tournament regional finals appearance, missing out on a trip to the 2010 Final Four by a single point.

He spent six years as an assistant at Iowa under the tutelage of coach Tom Davis. It was during his Iowa tenure that Pearl recorded a phone conversation with recruit Deon Thomas about Thomas' recruitment by rival Illinois. Pearl turned the recording over to the NCAA, which investigated and uncovered unrelated recruiting violations by Illinois.

Pearl also spent nine seasons at Southern Indiana, leading the Screaming Eagles to the 1995 Division II national championship.

Information from ESPN.com's Chris Low and Andy Katz and The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE