(WBIR - Knoxville) The University of Tennessee's loss this weekend to the Mizzou Tigers dropped the Vols' overall record to 15-10 on the season (6-6 in the SEC). The mounting losses amid another relatively lackluster season has the men's basketball team on the NCAA tournament bubble and third-year head coach Cuonzo Martin on the hot seat with many fans.
The team still has six games to go before the SEC tournament, but many fans are already discussing who the next head coach should be at UT. The answer for thousands of the fans can be summed up in three words: Bring back Bruce.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 11,000 people have signed an online petition asking UT to rehire former head coach Bruce Pearl. Before this weekend's loss to Mizzou, the petition only had around 1,000 signatures.
Pearl was fired in March 2011 after a year in which his program was caught committing several recruiting violations, Pearl made a tearful admission to lying about the violations, and then proceeded to commit additional violations before he was terminated.
Monday the banter on Tennessee Sports Radio's talk shows focused on the feeling that current head coach Cuonzo Martin is a class act and great representative for the university. Yet, time and again fans express the believe that this season should be Martin's final act as head of the Vols.
"He [Cuonzo] is a good dude, and it's tough," said host Jayson Swain. "I understand why fans want Bruce Pearl back. He's the most successful coach here in recent years. He took the program to new heights. You have Bruce Pearl on the sidelines of Lady Vols games in body paint. He was just a coach with a tremendous amount of energy. I get why people want him, but something happened."
The growing sentiment that UT should consider a Pearl sequel has gone beyond fan-generated petitions and numerous Facebook pages. Last week Fox Sports published an article with the headline "Tennessee needs to bring bring back Pearl - now!"
"The overwhelming majority of fans want him [Bruce Pearl] back," said talk show host Seth Stokes with Tennessee Sports Radio. "I don't know if it is they want Bruce, specifically. But they want that hype and the vibe he brought to the program."
Fan support for Bruce Pearl is nothing new. On the day Pearl was fired, many fans rallied at Thompson Boling Arena and made it clear they "back Bruce." Fans proclaimed, "Everybody should have a second chance. Nobody's perfect. We love you, Bruce!"
Yet, the NCAA penalized Bruce Pearl for three years with a litany of sanctions that made it virtually impossible for him to land another college coaching gig in the time since he was fired. During that time, Pearl has remained in East Tennessee and active in the community. Pearl has also continued to express support for the employer who fired him, routinely using the word "we" when referring to UT teams.
The folks at Tennessee Sports Radio say a return for Pearl is unlikely, in large part because some of the school's current leadership made the decision to fire Pearl in 2011. Swain said if there is a coaching change, UT should at least hire another Pearl-like personality.
"We need an energetic coach that will make you feel like we've got the right guy and pump energy into the fan base," said Swain.
WBIR contacted Steven Pearl on Monday. The former UT basketball player and son of Bruce Pearl did not want to comment on-camera, saying he wants to "lay low" as debate grows among fans over the future of the basketball program. However, Pearl was willing to stand by previous comments regarding the desire by fans to bring back Bruce. In those comments, Steven Pearl has said people constantly ask him about whether his father will return as UT's head coach. Steven Pearl has also said on record that UT already has a head basketball coach and he does not believe such discussion is fair to Cuonzo Martin or the current players.