KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The visiting coach emerged from the northeast tunnel of Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena to a standing ovation on Saturday. With around 10 minutes left until tipoff, the coach waved to the crowd as he walked along the edge of the Volunteers’ home court. He continued down the scorer’s table, where he shook every hand like a politician and bear-hugged a few orange-clad fans seated behind the benches.
As the coach soaked in his reception, a familiar sound bellowed from the stands.
A trip to Tennessee really wasn’t a road game for first-year Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. Not long ago, this was his home. From 2005-11, the coach enjoyed a remarkably successful six-year run at the helm of the Vols, where he led the program to NCAA tournament berths in each season and helped claim Tennessee’s first No. 1 national ranking. Pearl made UT basketball both fun and relevant, two adjectives that hadn’t been associated with Tennessee in decades.
Much of Pearl’s success is ancient history now, and Saturday marked his first return as an opposing coach. His tenure with Tennessee didn’t end the way that he wanted. But walking into an arena that he used to call home, Pearl couldn’t ignore the memories.
“We lived here for nine years,” Pearl, who had who spent the last three years as the vice president of marketing for the H.T. Hackney company based in Knoxville, said after the game. “This was a really special time in Tennessee basketball history. We were able to add to it, and the vast majority of what we did was really good. It was great. It was a nice reception.”
Pearl’s Auburn team wasn’t able to put a positive spin on the memories. The Tigers held Tennessee to 41 percent shooting, but they committed 18 turnovers that led to 20 UT points. The Vols held on to win, 71-63, snapping a two-game skid.
The loss marked the first four-game losing streak in Pearl’s career as a head coach. He faces an uphill battle to work the same magic at Auburn as he did at Tennessee, but that was hardly the storyline as Pearl faced reporters after Saturday’s loss. His return to Knoxville was a chance for reflection and, perhaps, an uncomfortable reminder of what could’ve been.
Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee ended in a cloud of NCAA violations when he was fired in March 2011. Pearl compiled a 145-61 record with the school -- the most successful six-year run in program history -- but he left Tennessee little choice in its decision to fire him after multiple NCAA violations. Pearl lied to the NCAA about hosting a barbecue for recruits, and after the school received a letter of inquiry from the NCAA in September 2010, he held a tearful press conference apologizing to UT fans for his actions.
But then-athletic director Mike Hamilton eventually opted to fire Pearl and his staff after two more violations occurred, one in September 2010 and another the following March. In August 2011, the NCAA hit an unemployed Pearl with a three-year show cause penalty, essentially barring him from coaching until 2014. Last March, Auburn struck first and hired Pearl after firing coach Tony Barbee.
Tennessee hired Cuonzo Martin to replace Pearl in March 2011, and as Pearl’s show-cause neared its expiration last spring, Volunteer fans began yearning for the return of their former coach. More than 30,000 people signed an online petition calling for Tennessee to reinstate Pearl last season despite Martin still being employed and eventually leading the program to the Sweet Sixteen. When Martin left to take the Cal job after the season, the “Bring Back Bruce” movement grew louder. But under a new athletic director in Dave Hart, Tennessee was never going to bring back a coach who left the basketball program in NCAA probation.
When Pearl landed at Auburn, he and the Vols knew a return to Knoxville was imminent. On Saturday the Tigers said Pearl tried not to allow the lingering storyline to become a distraction this week. But his players understood the emotions lying ahead.
“He really didn’t talk about it too much, but we knew what it was,” guard KT Harrell said. “It was just another game to him, but deep down, we knew the pressure it was for him. We wanted to win for him.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, also wants to move forward. Donnie Tyndall is in his first year as the Vols’ coach, and the program is largely overachieving with an inexperienced roster. Behind players like Josh Richardson (15 points against Auburn) and Armani Moore (19), Tennessee has enjoyed a long stay in the top half of the current SEC standings.
But Tyndall also has his own NCAA baggage remaining from his previous stop at Southern Miss. The NCAA is currently investigating the Golden Eagles’ program for potential rules violations including improper financial aid. Last week two Southern Miss players recruited by Tyndall, senior Jeremiah Eason and junior Rasham Suarez, were ruled ineligible. No one knows whether or not the NCAA will eventually hit Tyndall with a punishment.
While Tyndall’s future in Knoxville remains unclear, on Saturday he reiterated the importance of recognizing Tennessee’s past.
“They should welcome Coach Pearl like they did,” Tyndall said. “It was a great ovation. They should be excited to see him. What he did here was great. It was a great run.”
As Tennessee ran out the clock on Saturday, another chant of BRUUUCE filled Thompson-Boling Arena. Pearl and Tyndall shared a long embrace before the Tigers’ coach entered the side tunnel amid applause. Several fans leaned over the railing and snapped photos of Pearl on their phones.
Outside Auburn’s locker room, Pearl stood with his coaches and hugged his son, Steven, who played for his dad at Tennessee and is now an assistant on his staff. The hallway was quiet. Both men cried. They were emotions that, in reality, had little to do with the game’s result. Tennessee’s home court bears the name “The Summitt,” a nod to legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. But Pearl played as big as role as anyone in resurrecting a lifeless men’s program at UT.
Pearl said he planned to fly back to Auburn early Saturday afternoon. He and his wife, Brandy, met with friends in Knoxville on Friday night, but they didn’t plan on staying in town much longer. The coach knows he penned his own forgettable final chapter to his story at Tennessee, but he doesn’t plan on losing the rest of those memories anytime soon.
“We put ourselves in that position, but the families went through a lot,” Pearl said. “I could just sort of feel in [Steven’s] embrace all that we went through. Hey, God is good, and I’m grateful for the blessings. I’m not complaining one bit. But we shared that difficult time, loving Tennessee and trying to represent it as best we possibly can, and then the pain of when it was taken away from us. Nobody felt that pain more than … our families.”
Added Pearl: “I’m proud of the fact that Tennessee basketball is still good and still relevant. I am.”