A year ago, Bruce Pearl was within seconds of guiding Tennessee to the first Final Four in program history.
A few months ago, as Pearl found himself in hot water with the NCAA, was suspended for eight games by the SEC and was pilloried nationwide as the guy who lied to the NCAA about a photo of his own house, Pearl somehow maintained the clear public backing of Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton and university chancellor Jimmy Cheek, not to mention overwhelming support from Vols fans throughout Tennessee.
For all his troubles, and for the many months and days yet to come before those troubles would be resolved, it seemed that Pearl could -- even would -- survive this mess.
How quickly things change.
Tennessee fired Pearl on Monday after his school-record sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance. Pearl took to Facebook (the public relations clearinghouse for all matters of grave import, of course) to address the decision today:
"As many of you know, I have been fired as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers," Pearl wrote to his 11,000-plus Facebook followers. "This really does not come as a surprise to me, but my emotions are getting the best of me. This is perhaps the saddest day in my life. I loved everything about Tennessee, Knoxville and the Volunteers. These were the best years of my life."
According to ESPN.com's Chris Low, "Pearl was informed of his dismissal on Monday, and all that remains is the finalization of a financial package for Pearl and his assistants."
Clearly, this is not an amicable parting of ways. This is a nasty breakup to a relationship that seemed healthy even as Pearl and Hamilton revealed the extent of the program's NCAA violations in September. Pearl, a onetime attempted NCAA whistle-blower and coaching pariah, had become just another coach caught in the tangled web of phone calls, illegal visits and other bureaucratic shortcuts that ensnares this profession so frequently.
But Pearl did something worse. Pearl lied to NCAA investigators about a barbecue at his house, and although he eventually went back to correct the record, the damage was done. You can make too many phone calls, and you can have high school juniors to your house for a barbecue, but when the NCAA asks you about it -- and they have a photo proving your guilt -- you can't lie. Pearl did.
A tearful public mea culpa conference soon followed, as did an unprecedented eight-game SEC suspension from conference commissioner Mike Slive. Despite the decision, Hamilton and Cheek stood by their coach's side.
"Bruce is our coach, and he's going to be our coach for many years," Cheek said on Nov. 20. "We're going to get through this adversity."
"It’s our intention to keep him," Hamilton said on Feb. 16. "Unless there’s something [severe violation] out there we’re unaware of."
Clearly, Hamilton and Cheek do not feel the same way today. What, exactly, caused this dramatic change?
Was it the discovery by the NCAA of a potential "bump" violation that Pearl failed to share with Hamilton and Cheek? Did UT officials come to their senses and decide that Pearl's continued employment would undermine their university's academic and ethical mission? Was it Tennessee's uninspiring, heartless 30-point loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament?
Despite what they might say, the answers are no, no and no.
Pearl isn't being fired because he didn't win. Hamilton and Cheek supported Pearl for so long precisely because Pearl built Tennessee's once-flagging men's program from the ground up; no men's basketball coach has been more successful at the school.
Pearl isn't being fired because of the Tennessee's high-minded institutional morals. If that were the case, he would have been gone this past fall.
And no, Pearl probably isn't being fired because of any additional NCAA violations. That might be what Hamilton and Cheek say, but given everything Pearl has done to anger the NCAA, a minor, unreported run-in with a recruit amounts to nothing more than a drop in the ocean -- albeit an incredibly untimely drop in the ocean.
No, what seems most likely -- and this is a guess -- is that Hamilton and Cheek stepped back, took a deep breath and looked around. They likely looked at the precedent for cases such as Pearl's; such coaches usually receive show-cause penalties. They absorbed the seriousness of the NCAA's notice of allegations. They analyzed the prospect of Tennessee's ability to survive an NCAA investigation into both its football and basketball programs, and they pictured the scene when the Volunteers were called to June's hearing before the NCAA committee on infractions with an orange-clad Pearl in tow.
If one had to guess, one would guess that Hamilton and Cheek pictured that scene and realized they needed to do what should have been done months ago. To save Tennessee basketball -- or at least give it some hope -- they needed to fire Pearl.
What Chancellor Cheek and the decision-makers in Knoxville don't seem to understand is that Hamilton likewise needs to go. The athletic director has been the man in charge while two violations investigations were launched into Tennessee's two biggest sports programs. If Pearl deserves to be fired, so does Hamilton. In fact, most Tennessee fans would prefer Pearl stayed and Hamilton left, and the margin is not even close.
Alas, that is not a viable way forward for Tennessee. Maybe it never was. But if you heard Hamilton and Cheek in November, December, January and February, you were right to assume that Pearl could potentially find his way out of this mess without having to ditch his collection of orange jackets. UT brass wanted Pearl to remain the coach for as long as it was possible.
It's not possible anymore, and so Pearl is gone. The support has withered. The risks are too great. The rewards, flashy though they were, no longer measure up.
Things change quickly in March.
Both on and off the court.