AD's comments create awkward atmosphere

March, 17, 2011
03/17/11
9:22
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is well aware that his sixth straight NCAA appearance at Tennessee might be his last with his Vols.

He just wasn't expecting to learn that Wednesday.

Pearl and the staff wanted to stay away from publicly commenting on the situation, but they couldn't help themselves privately.

When Pearl stepped down from the podium, his eyes had the look of a defeated man. He is trying to pull off a surprising run in the NCAAs, beat Michigan, upset Duke and get to the West Regional in Anaheim. But even if Pearl were to lead the Vols to an unlikely national title, all indications point to the end of the Pearl era in Knoxville.

Pearl was caught off guard by athletic director Mike Hamilton's comments to WNML-AM in Knoxville on Wednesday that the school was doing a lot of soul-searching to determine the direction of the program. He said they would decide what direction they were going to pursue after the NCAA tournament.

Pearl thought he would have a chance to defend himself against the committee on infractions as the head coach at Tennessee on June 10-11 in Indianapolis. But now that seems highly unlikely. Either way, he'll have to go in front of the COI to hear his penalty and if he'll be able to work in Division I in the near future.

"Up until recently I thought I would, the assumption was that I would from everything that was being said," Pearl said of still being the coach when the COI meeting occurs. "That's still the case. The announcement was that I'm going to be evaluated, and so how much of a departure from what's been said I'll find out when I get evaluated."

According to the Tennessee staff, Hamilton apologized for the timing of the comments, which went public as the Vols were driving from Knoxville to Charlotte on Wednesday. The comments took the focus off Tennessee's game against Michigan and instead put the line of questioning to the players, Pearl and his staff on his status at the pregame news conference.

"This team has handled distractions well the last couple of years so we're not surprised, but it was something new to deal with," said Pearl's son, Steven, a senior on the team. "The unfortunate thing is the timing. I don't think anything has changed. The mood is great. We're excited about the opportunity against Michigan."

But everything has changed. Pearl is resigned to this possibly being his final game as Vols head coach, something that he always knew was a possibility when he admitted to lying about a photo showing him hosting recruits at his house at a summer cookout.

Pearl didn't hide from the questions Thursday, saying that he was the one who broke rules and put himself in this position. The players, notably senior Brian Williams, said that the staff had insulated the team well from the chatter about their status.

But after discussing the latest obstacle with the staff, they are completely spent. They know the end is near and with the coaching carousel spinning at full steam, the assistants aren't likely to get a sniff.

Tennessee men's basketball became relevant under Pearl as the Vols reached six straight NCAA tournaments for the first time ever, reached No. 1 in the country in 2008 and got to the Elite Eight last season. But they also had a coach who was a lightning rod for attention.

This season was chaos defined. Pearl couldn't coach for eight SEC games, and associate coach Tony Jones replaced him. Tennessee beat Villanova in New York and Pitt in Pittsburgh, but lost at Charlotte and to Oakland and Charleston at home.

Tennessee could have avoided this mess by making a decision to cut Pearl loose when the lie came to light in September. Instead, the school and Hamilton stuck with Pearl throughout the season, only to sabotage the players' chances -- or at least provide a giant distraction -- two days before their first game in the NCAA tournament.

Any false sense Pearl had of weathering this storm was made clearer Wednesday.

Pearl's comments at the podium Thursday were from a man who knows he's about to exit. He started to reflect on his career and highlight the accomplishments. Defeated, down and a bit sullen, Pearl sounded like a coach trying to exit as well as he can in the final days.

"While most of our fans would say your greatest accomplishment has been getting to the Elite Eight last year or three Sweet 16s, I almost believe that taking six different teams to this [NCAA] championship [at Tennessee] is something that I'm the most proud of," Pearl said. "We found a way to win."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer
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