KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's program appears to be in shambles after the firing of popular coach Bruce Pearl amid. Volunteers athletics officials still insist it's an attractive place to be despite ongoing NCAA compliance problems.
Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton said in a statement Monday that the search would begin immediately for a new coach.
"This is a great job and will attract a significant number of interested coaches," Hamilton said. "Much of that interest is a tribute to what coach Pearl has helped to build, but more importantly, what our fans have built. We will take an appropriate amount of time, but will move as swiftly as is effective to bring this to conclusion."
Tennessee's next coach will inherit a program that could be facing scholarship losses or a postseason ban as a result of an NCAA investigation that uncovered 10 alleged major violations during Pearl's six-year tenure. He also will be forced to follow an extremely popular coach who led the Vols to six straight NCAA tournaments and their first regional finals appearance.
Hamilton has bore the brunt of Vols fans' frustration about the investigation and Pearl's firing, and now his job security seems unstable. Fans already were frustrated with Hamilton's hiring of football coach Lane Kiffin, whose one-year tenure drew two charges of recruiting violations from the NCAA as well.
He upset the fan base further last week when he first indicated Pearl's future at Tennessee was uncertain just days before the Vols faced Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a game they eventually lost 75-45. Hamilton apologized in his Monday statement for his untimely comments created.
"While my comments were never intended for harm, they became an unneeded distraction to what has already been a year of distractions," he said.
The new coach could also be facing a depleted roster by the time he arrives on campus.
Tennessee's star freshman forward, Tobias Harris, planned to test the waters of the NBA draft for a few weeks before deciding whether to return for his sophomore season. Junior guard Scotty Hopson may do the same.
Kevin Ware, a guard from Conyers, Ga., and Tennessee's two incoming freshmen, have asked Tennessee for a release from their commitments. Chris Jones, a point guard from Memphis, had not publicly announced whether he would seek a release.
"Was loyal to my commitment but its been stressful on me going threw all this so I decided to open my recruitment back up," Ware wrote on Twitter on Monday. "At the same time depending on what coach comes in I can definately (sic) consider UT again. Its a great atmosphere."
Hamilton, UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and other officials who lead the search for Tennessee's next coach will promote the campus' sports atmosphere to candidates.
Part of Pearl's legacy will be his promotion of Tennessee basketball by connecting with the fans, who began buying season tickets, filling the cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena for games soon after he arrived on campus. Tennessee's basketball program became more financially viable, and the athletics department renovated the arena and built a new basketball practice facility as a result.
It was not immediately clear who Tennessee would pursue to fill the coaching job, though experts expect the school to pursue hot candidates like Virginia Commonwealth coach and former Florida assistant Shaka Smart, Richmond coach Chris Mooney and Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who will all coach in NCAA regional semifinal games this weekend.
Cheek pledged his confidence that Hamilton would make a smart hire.
"Going forward, I am confident that Mike Hamilton will find the right coach who can build on the foundation created over the past several years," he said. "Mike Hamilton has my support. I join him in looking forward to continued success."