About 150 Tennessee fans turned out Sunday afternoon for a hastily organized pep rally held to support embattled Vols coach Bruce Pearl.
“We’re just here to show Bruce we still love him,’’ said Parker Williams, the 18-year-old student from Catholic High School who came up with the idea for the supportive gathering at the G-10 parking garage beside Thompson-Boling Arena. “We want people to know we’re standing up for him.’’
Williams got the word out about the rally 18 hours earlier via the “Keep Bruce Pearl” Facebook page on Saturday night.
Pearl’s future as UT’s men’s basketball coach is being scrutinized after Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton said in a WNML radio interview that aired last Wednesday that he didn’t know if Pearl would be retained.
Tennessee completed its season Friday with a 75-45 loss to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte, N.C.
Hamilton said Pearl will be evaluated by the UT administration before the school makes a decision on his future.
Hamilton, along with UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek, previously had said Pearl would be retained as the Vols basketball coach.
“Why would you not take the chancellor of the University of Tennessee at his word?’’ said Barry Smith, a 49-year-old Knoxville resident. “I think the NCAA has reared their head and are extorting UT, saying, ‘If you keep (Pearl), you’re going to regret it.’
“What Bruce did was wrong, everybody gets that, and he’s paid a price for that . . . but he gained no competitive advantage from the violation he committed.’’
The men’s basketball program is scheduled to go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions on June 10-11 and faces allegations of 10 major violations, including an unethical conduct charge against Pearl.
Pearl lied to NCAA investigators in a June 14, 2010, interview when asked about a photo taken of him at his house with Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, then a junior in high school who had made a verbal (non-binding) commitment to sign with the Vols.
Neither Pearl nor Hamilton could be reached for comment Sunday regarding the rally.
“Bruce Pearl is a good coach who made a mistake, and all of us have made mistakes,’’ said 80-year-old Donald Brackins, who has had season basketball tickets since Ray Mears was UT’s coach (1962-77).
“We now have much better basketball, and Bruce does so much for our community.’’
Rita Roth introduced herself at the rally as a breast cancer survivor who has benefited from the OUTLIVE program, which Pearl started in 2008 to increase cancer awareness. The program has raised more than $260,000 for UT Medical Center’s Cancer Institute.
“Bruce and his family have been a big part of my recovery,’’ Roth said. “And I’ve been a season-ticket holder for 15 years, and I have never loved basketball the way I love basketball now. It’s going to set the program back if they let Bruce go.’’
John Green, a 46-year-old from Jefferson City, said Tennessee won’t find another coach like Pearl.
“How many coaches would come through the stands with their players before and after games?’’ Green said. “How many coaches would paint their chest to support their women’s basketball program?
“If people can’t tell he’s sincere about Tennessee, there’s something wrong with them.’’
Vols junior Cameron Tatum showed up at the rally to visit with fans and check out the support.
“I just wanted to see what was happening, and I’ve always supported coach Pearl, so coming here was the right thing to do,’’ Tatum said. “All of us players are holding our breath to see what happens.
“We don’t have much control; everybody just wants coach Pearl to come back.’’
Even ESPN analyst Dick Vitale is advocating Pearl be retained by Tennessee.
Vitale was one of the more vocal critics when Pearl’s unethical conduct violation was made public, saying “99-percent” of the schools in the country would have fired Pearl immediately.
On Friday, however, Vitale used his Twitter account to tweet: “Pearl’s kids love playing 4 him & he has accepted blame 4 his actions. With obvious penalty I now feel he deserves 2nd chance.’’
UT’s self-imposed penalties included Pearl losing $1.5 million in salary and being suspended from recruiting off campus for a year. SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended Pearl for eight league games.