For a while there yesterday, it looked like Tennessee was gunning for Ohio State's title of worst P.R. day of 2011. Reports came out that Bruce Pearl had been fired, Pearl himself put a message about it on his Facebook page, and nothing but silence came from the school.
Eventually Mike Hamilton released a statement, finally giving the school's side of the saga. From what Hamilton says, it's a combination of additional violations from September 14 and this month, the "cumulative effect of the evolution of the investigation," and "a number of more recent non-NCAA-related incidents" that led the school to cut ties with Pearl. ESPN's sources filled in that last blank by saying the non-NCAA-related part was substance abuse policy violations by C Brian Williams.
ESPN also says that the final decision came from Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, which is not surprising. The secondary violations and substance abuse allegations that supposedly led to the firing are not major news for a top-tier athletics program, and Hamilton did everything he could to keep Pearl around. I guess it was sort of a straw that broke the camel's back kind of thing, though sources told Chris Low that Tennessee officials are now afraid of what the NCAA might do in its hearing in June if Pearl was still around.
It's not an unreasonable fear. The NCAA, if it is to take itself seriously at all, has no choice when it comes to lowering the boom on people who lie to it and the organizations that support them.
The NCAA has no subpoena power. It has no legal authority when it comes to enforcing its bylaws. It does the best it can with investigations, but due to those restrictions, some amount of every case relies on people telling it the truth. Consequently, the NCAA has to provide people an incentive to incriminate themselves (so to speak, in terms of NCAA bylaws) when dealing with investigators by telling the truth.
The sole incentive is has is to hammer those who aren't cooperative. Dez Bryant got a season-long suspension for lying. Part of why USC's penalties from the Reggie Bush case are so harsh is because people involved obstructed the investigation. Pearl is going to get something nasty from the Committee on Infractions, and you can bet that Jim Tressel will too down the line.
Ultimately, that's why Pearl had to go: the threat of harsh NCAA penalties is hanging over the Tennessee program like the sword of Damocles. If the scandal was limited solely to the men's basketball program, there might have been some amount of hope of keeping Pearl. Because the football program is under investigation too, and by extension the whole athletics department that was supposed to be keeping an eye on Pearl and Lane Kiffin too, Tennessee had to do something to show that it was serious about compliance.
That something happened yesterday.