What if ...

I can't help wondering what would have happened if there had been a thunderstorm in Knoxville on Sept. 20, 2008, the day Bruce Pearl decided to host a barbecue for three junior prospects.

Maybe he would've telephoned the prospects that morning and said, "It's too wet for a cookout at my home, so let's just meet at the university, watch some video and tour the facilities."

Maybe Josh Selby and Aaron Craft would've honored their verbal commitments and helped Tennessee earn a berth in the Sweet 16 as true freshmen this season, instead of helping Kansas and Ohio State, respectively, to get there.

Maybe Pearl would've gotten a mere slap on the wrist for misleading NCAA investigators regarding the number of telephone calls he and his assistants made to prospects.

Maybe the Big Orange Nation would be celebrating today instead of mourning.

Unfortunately for the fans, there was no thunderstorm the day of that fateful barbecue, thereby enabling Pearl to commit an NCAA violation.

Unfortunately for the fans, Selby and Craft opted for other schools.

Unfortunately for the fans, Pearl opted to mislead NCAA investigators about the phone calls and the site where a damning photo of himself and Craft was taken.

Unfortunately for the fans, the distractions stemming from the NCAA investigation helped the 2010-11 Vols unravel after a 7-0 start, resulting in an ugly 30-point loss to Michigan that closed a disappointing 19-15 season.

Unfortunately for the fans, the coach who guided Tennessee to a 145-61 record and an unprecedented six consecutive NCAA Tournament bids was fired earlier today ... at least partly because he hosted a barbecue for three junior prospects, then lied about a photo taken during the event.

Understandably, many Big Orange fans are devastated. After enduring 20 years of mediocre basketball, they saw Pearl explode onto the scene in 2005. Thanks to boundless energy and a flamboyant personality, he made Vol hoops fun again. Then he made Vol hoops relevant again. Now he has made Vol hoops unstable again. Tennessee suddenly finds itself looking to hire its sixth head coach in the past 21 years.

Although Pearl's dismissal has been a foregone conclusion for nearly a week, today's official announcement did nothing to dissipate the dark cloud surrounding Big Orange basketball. Tennessee fans are in shock, and I can empathize. The abrupt departure of a head coach is no fun for anybody.

I covered one of Bill Battle's last practices before he was forced out as Tennessee's football coach in 1976. I covered the news conference at which successor Johnny Majors announced he was not being retained in November of 1992 and I covered the tearful resignation speech of his successor, Phillip Fulmer, in November of 2008.

Seeing a basketball coach depart can be painful, too. I've now witnessed Ray Mears, Don DeVoe, Wade Houston, Kevin O'Neill, Jerry Green, Buzz Peterson and Bruce Pearl come and go. Mears couldn't overcome health issues. DeVoe couldn't maintain his early momentum. Houston and Peterson couldn't win enough. The fiery O'Neill couldn't deal with the athletics director and the eccentric Green couldn't deal with the fan base. Pearl? Well, he couldn't admit making too many phone calls and hosting one too many backyard barbecues.

I feel for every one of those former coaches. As one of 67 employees put out of work by The Knoxville Journal's closure back in 1991, I can relate to people who abruptly lose their jobs.

Most of all, though, I can relate to the frustration of Vol basketball fans. They've suffered through a seemingly endless series of setbacks the past two decades. Almost every time they got excited about the program something crushed their spirit.

Sadly, the dismissal of Bruce Pearl may be the most crushing blow yet.

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