The real thing may be gone, but a life-sized cardboard Bruce Pearl cruised the University of Tennessee campus Monday with his torso sticking out of the top of a maroon Jeep.
When the two-dimensional Pearl flashed his smile while holding a Coke bottle in front of Neyland Stadium, Pearl supporters rallying there cheered in delight.
About 75 students and fans met at the plaza before trekking through campus behind one man waving a UT flag on a tall stick and another with a "Honk if you love Bruce" sign that solicited beeps from drivers in solidarity with the men's basketball coach, fired Monday for lying to NCAA investigators during a probe into recruiting violations.
The crowd chanted variations of "We love Bruce" and "We want Bruce" and sometimes just "Bruuuce." The group weaved from Neyland Stadium across the pedestrian walkway near Hodges Library and down Lake Loudoun Boulevard to Thompson-Boling Arena, where they chanted some more as fans supporting the Lady Vols basketball team trickled into the arena for Monday's second-round women's NCAA tournament game against Marquette University.
"It stinks that he's been fired," said Lady Vols fan Ann Lane, 67, of Franklin, Tenn. "The timing is terrible. The timing of (UT athletic director Mike) Hamilton's comments last Wednesday was terrible and the timing of this today is terrible because the Lady Vols (are playing)."
Supporters admitted that rallying wouldn't save Pearl's job, but their mission varied from fans who wanted to thank the popular coach to those who expressed frustration about the timing of the decision, to many more who want Hamilton to lose his job as well.
The rally began as a "Support Bruce" rally but turned to a "Fire Mike Hamilton" rally, said organizer Robert Banks, a sophomore from Erie, Pa. He wasn't the only fan frustrated with the athletic director.
"If this whole thing is about accountability, Pearl apologized and nobody seems to be holding Mike Hamilton accountable for the decision he made," said Eric Hering, 25, a staff member at UT who cited the firing of former football coach Phillip Fulmer and the disastrous short term of his successor, Lane Kiffin, as reasons for frustration with Hamilton.
Within hours of hearing the news, students painted "We R Bruce. Fire Mike Hamilton" on "the Rock" - a mega-ton chunk of Knox dolomite on campus that serves as a message board for students.
"(Pearl) served his punishment and apologized to the nation," said sophomore Maegann Koenig, who organized the painting with a handful of friends. "Suspend him for a few more games, but don't take him from the university. I don't feel anybody else is going to take his place."
Not everyone, however, wanted to bash the athletic director.
Chris Sharpe, a senior from Oak Ridge, joined the marching mob but had a less hostile message.
"I'm just out here to thank Bruce for all the things he did for UT," he said. "It's never going to be OK to lie to the NCAA, and I understand what happened, but I'm just disappointed in the way the administration handled this entire week. I'm not here to say 'fire Hamilton' or 'fire (UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy) Cheek'. I just really appreciate how (Pearl) transformed the Tennessee basketball scene."
Megan Boehnke can be reached at 865-42-6432.