The big, blue and white bus climbed the Appalachian Mountains on March 19 carrying the Tennessee men's basketball team back from a shameful showing in a game that tipped off 24 hours earlier.
Associate head coach Tony Jones manned the front passenger seat normally reserved for coach Bruce Pearl, who on this particular trip traveled back with a support group that included his mother, father and wife.
"The bus was very quiet, subdued,'' Jones said of the trip home from Charlotte, N.C., where the season ended with a disappointing 75-45 loss to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"That was the longest 4 1/2-hour ride of my life; I was thinking about a lot of things,'' Jones said. "I didn't know for sure what we were coming home to.''
Last Monday, two days after the Vols returned to Knoxville, Pearl, along with his staff, was fired, ending months of intense media scrutiny and speculation ongoing since UT held a Sept. 10 press conference to release the Letter of Inquiry it had received from the NCAA.
The letter, which signaled the start of an official investigation by the NCAA Enforcement staff, indicated Pearl provided NCAA investigators with false information about impermissible contact made with unofficial visitors during a cookout at his home.
The official announcement of Pearl's firing came in document form, too, via a press release at 10 p.m. Monday.
Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton explained in the press release that, "The cumulative effect of the evolution of the investigation combined with a number of more recent non-NCAA-related incidents have led to a belief that this staff cannot be viable at Tennessee in the future.''
It had been nearly a week (March 16) since Hamilton had made any public statements, written or verbal.
The act of firing Pearl began Monday morning, but the fiery head coach didn't go easily, arguing his reasons to remain in charge and raising his voice on more than one occasion in Hamilton's office, according to sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.
Pearl went so far as to return for an afternoon session in Stokely Athletic Center before finally exiting the building around 4 p.m.
Pearl's attorney arrived to meet with university attorneys shortly after 5 p.m. Monday to hammer out the terms of separation.
Pearl's payout will be $948,728. He'll receive his current monthly salary of $109,599.40 through June 30, after which he will receive $50,000 per month plus health insurance costs through June 30, 2012.
Pearl's assistants - Jones, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay - will be paid their current salaries through July 31.
The fall of the Pearl era began Sept. 20, 2008.
The News Sentinel featured a recruiting story that day which began with an innocent sentence that proved foretelling: "Tennessee's football game with Florida also marks one of the bigger men's basketball team recruiting weekends in coach Bruce Pearl's tenure.''
The Vols were coming off a historic season in which they won a school-record 31 games and attained the No. 1 ranking in the Top 25 polls for the first time in school history. The regular season ended with Tennessee No. 1 in the RPI ratings and No. 1 in strength of schedule, two more firsts in the history of the program.
Tennessee men's basketball had momentum like never before, and the visitor list on that fateful September weekend reflected as much.
The Gators beat the football Vols 30-6 that day with Pearl's recruits in attendance, but an even bigger setback in UT athletics was just beginning.
Pearl, along with his assistant coaches and some of their family members, went to Pearl's West Knoxville home in Gettysvue for a cookout.
Not all of the recruits were invited. Only the official visitors, and the three unofficial visitors - high school juniors - who had made verbal commitments to sign with the Vols: Jordan McRae, Josh Selby and Aaron Craft.
The recruits were at Pearl's home for only a couple of hours, according to a source who was present. It was long enough for Craft to have his picture taken with Pearl; a happy future Vol with a happy coach.
Craft, who was not rated in the top 100 players when Pearl accepted his commitment, announced he was changing his mind on May 26, 2009.
"Basically, I sat down with my family and decided this would be best for me,'' Craft told the News Sentinel at the time of his de-commitment. "It was nothing Tennessee did or didn't do.''
Rather, it was a calling from his home-state school, Ohio State, which had not offered Craft a scholarship until after his commitment to the Vols.
In July, after the LeBron James Nike Camp in Ohio, the Vols lost prized recruit Selby, who announced he no longer was committed to UT.
The UT staff went back to work on the recruiting trail, landing McDonald's All-American Tobias Harris and Georgia player of the year Trae Golden, once an Ohio State commit, while holding on to McRae.
Once the regular season started, a veteran team began going through its own trials and tribulations.
Smith faced misdemeanor weapons charges, Williams misdemeanor drug charges and Tatum was charged with speeding.
The black eye on the program was short-lived, however, as an undermanned Tennessee team bounced back to defeat No. 1-ranked Kansas 76-68 on Jan. 10 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The win over the Jayhawks proved to be a sign of things to come, as Pearl guided UT to the first Elite Eight in the school's history by defeating No. 5 Ohio State 76-73 in the Sweet 16 in St. Louis.
The summer of 2010 began with the knowledge that the NCAA was checking into the activities of former UT football coach Lane Kiffin and his staff.
Few could have known that on June 14, Pearl provided false and misleading information to NCAA investigators.
Forbes was first to be brought into an office in the Andy Holt Tower to meet with investigators.
When shown a black-and-white grainy photo of Pearl with Craft that was printed out on paper, Forbes was the first to say he couldn't be absolutely sure where the picture was taken.
The university attorneys had advised the coaches to answer only the questions they were asked, according to a source with knowledge of the interview session.
Shay was the next to be brought in, followed by Jones and then Pearl.
It wasn't until the next week that a restless Pearl determined his testimony couldn't stand, at which point he sought out a UT associate athletic director to ask for another interview, according to Hamilton.
Hamilton said he was out of town at that time, but upon returning in early July and learning of Pearl's plight, he took up the issue with the NCAA.
The NCAA granted Pearl and his staff another interview session in the Andy Holt Tower on Aug. 5, at which time all of the coaches identified the location the picture was taken.
The Public Eye
Many were caught off-guard when UT announced it would hold a press conference on Sept. 10 to reveal the Letter of Inquiry.
Photo by Michael Patrick // Buy this photo
Even more shocking was Pearl's presence at Neyland Stadium and the revelation that the men's basketball program was involved and Pearl had not been forthcoming with NCAA investigators.
Pearl issued a tearful apology, in the midst of which, the stadium fire alarm went off.
Official statements were handed out, along with documentation that detailed the severe, self-imposed sanctions that Hamilton hoped would lead the NCAA to show mercy.
Among the penalties, all of the coaches had their salaries reduced by 25 percent, Pearl and Forbes would serve one-year off-campus recruiting bans, with Jones getting a nine-month sentence and Shay three.
"I have no tolerable answer for why I didn't tell the truth
. . . I let my family down, I let the university down, I let our fans down and I let my players down,'' Pearl said Sept. 10. "I have a responsibility to lead by example, and I should expect more from myself and so should you.''
Pearl and his staff were given two weeks to complete the fall recruiting and carry out scheduled visits, as their recruiting bans wouldn't start until Sept. 24.
On Oct. 21, Hamilton revealed that Pearl's contract had been terminated on Sept. 9, the day before the Letter of Inquiry press conference.
"It doesn't change our stance that we want Bruce Pearl to be our basketball coach for months and years to come,'' Hamilton told the News Sentinel that day. "The bottom line is the nature of what came to light in the (NCAA) investigation warranted termination of his previous contract as determined by legal counsel.
"That, coupled with the fact we are making changes to the compensation, led to the necessity of a new contract which he has in his hands already. We're in the final stages of getting that signed.''
Mike Slive Weighs In
On Nov. 19, SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced that Pearl would be suspended for the first half of the SEC season, a penalty of eight games.
It was another unprecedented move, but UT administrators rallied behind Pearl at a press conference the day of Slive's announcement.
"Coach Pearl is our coach,'' UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek said on Nov. 19. "He's going to be our coach for many, many years. We're going to get through this adversity and we're going to be stronger as a result of it.''
Pearl still didn't have a new contract in his hand, though sources on both ends of the deal said the holdup had nothing to do with salary or bonuses.
Cheek assured the media that Pearl's new contract was soon to be finished.
"Currently it's (the contract) in our general counsel's office and we hope to have that from her very soon,'' Cheek said. "We will get the contract finalized. We believe we've made the right decision.''
All signs pointed toward Pearl being retained, even while ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said that "99 percent" of schools would have fired Pearl for his infractions.
Hamilton told the News Sentinel on Jan. 8 in Fayetteville, Ark., that it was UT's intention to keep Pearl so long as "there aren't any major violations we're unaware of,'' even if the NCAA mandated Pearl be suspended for a year.
Documents from Feb. 23, 2011
On Feb. 22, the Vols received their Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, a report from the enforcement staff detailing their findings.
There were 10 major violations listed. The only one that had not been made public previously involved a "bump violation" that took place on Sept. 14 at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.
Pearl and Jones were sitting in the bleachers when they were approached by potential recruit Jordan Adams.
In happenstance meetings, coaches are allowed to exchange pleasantries, but the conversation is not to be excessive.
Two sources - one in the UT basketball program, another in the UT administration - said on the day the Notice of Allegations arrived that UT would appeal the violation during its June 10-11 meetings in Indianapolis with the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
At the time, most everyone assumed that the decision to appeal the bump violation meant that UT would maintain its support of Pearl.
Change Of Direction
On March 13, the UT basketball family - coaches, wives, children, donors and school officials - gathered in the Ray Mears Room at Thompson-Boling Arena to view the selection show for the NCAA tournament.
As expected, the Vols received a school-record sixth consecutive bid to play in the NCAA tournament.
Hamilton, while present, did not publicly address the team or the crowd and had left the room by the time Pearl began his interviews with the media.
Hamilton was not heard from again until March 16, when Knoxville radio station WNML broadcast an interview recorded the day before in which he said he was unsure if Pearl would be the coach next season.
The interview aired 20 minutes after the big, blue and white bus left for Charlotte, full of players intent on saving their season with a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
As the bus rolled along, players and coaches received text messages and phone calls from friends and family members informing them of Hamilton's interview.
The next day, at the pregame NCAA tournament interview session in Time Warner Cable Arena, Pearl and his players spent the majority of their time answering questions about Pearl's future and Hamilton's comments.
Pearl and the players said the comments should not stand in the way of their focus or performance, but the embarrassing second-half collapse the Vols experienced against Michigan suggested otherwise.
Torrel Harris, father of Tobias Harris, was incensed in the wake of the loss.
"Instead of them thinking about the game, they start thinking about Coach Pearl being gone if they lose,'' Harris said. "It had a huge effect on the kids and the outcome of the game.
"Mike Hamilton blew them away.''
And then Hamilton fired Pearl.
In Hamilton's statement Monday, there were references to a March violation and "non-NCAA-related" incidents.
It has since been learned that a UT player received extra tickets to the Vols' game against Kentucky on March 6, the final home game of the season, though the value of the tickets made it a secondary violation, according to a source in the athletic program.
Documents from March 21, 2011
Vols signee Kevin Ware said that immediately after the game with the Wildcats, Hamilton met with recruits and their families and assured them Pearl would be UT's head coach next season and that his contract was done.
As for the non-NCAA-related incident, ESPN.com has reported that it involved a violation of the UT substance abuse policy by Williams. Williams missed the last two games of the regular season with a bad back, according to Pearl and Williams.
Williams, who had back problems throughout his career, said he tweaked his back in a Feb. 26 loss to Mississippi State. At one point in the game, he stayed down for an extended period of time after landing awkwardly.
Williams didn't practice from Feb. 27 through March 6, and some have speculated that another reason Williams missed the two games was that he failed to take a drug test, a violation of policy.
Drug test results are considered private and are not subject to public records requests; but along with Pearl, Hamilton and the corresponding UT associate athletic director have access to test results.
While strong sentiments for Pearl and his staff linger in the community, the administration has moved forward in its search for a new head coach.
Coordinator of video operations and former Appalachian State head coach Houston Fancher has assumed interim head coaching duties.
Fancher already has scored one victory for Tennessee, calling Ware's father, Wesley, after Kevin Ware asked to be released from his National Letter of Intent after Pearl's firing.
Ware said later Wednesday night he had changed his mind, sending word via his Twitter account that he was a "VFL" - Vol For life.
When is it going to be about us, the players, again?
Fancher garnered the attention of the team in his first words as acting head coach after Hamilton had addressed the returning UT players.
"Mike asked me if I had anything to say to the team,'' Fancher said. "I said 'Yes,' and I turned to the team and said, 'Take off your hats, and look me directly in the eye.' "
Fancher invited the team to his home that night to share their feelings and concerns in the wake of Pearl's firing.
All of the returning players took him up on it, and the team congregated on Fancher's back porch.
Halfway through the team talk, McRae stood up and asked Fancher a question that the 45-year-old interim coach could not answer.
"When,'' McRae said, "is it going to be about us, the players, again?''