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Commentary: Surely it just slipped

Initial reactions aren’t always accurate. Emotion often gives way to logic.

UT-Knoxville chancellor Jimmy Cheek, men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl and men's athletic director Mike Hamilton.

But several hours to digest haven’t changed the thoughts on Tennessee men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton’s quotes regarding basketball coach Bruce Pearl’s future. Not on this end, they haven’t.

Surely this was an accident.

Surely.

There is no other rational way to explain Hamilton’s comments on Knoxville sports radio station WNML. The comments, which were recorded Tuesday and aired Wednesday, wouldn’t have been so meaningful had they not come at such a meaningful time.

Asked directly if Pearl would return next season as UT’s coach, Hamilton told the station, “We don’t know the answer today.”

“I think that we’ve done a lot of soul-searching about the direction of our program and we’ll continue to do that, and we’ll decide after we’re out of the NCAA tournament what the direction is we’ll go next,” Hamilton added.

Hamilton said no specific timetable has been set for determining Pearl’s future.

“That’ll be a decision we make in the short term, or we’ll wait and make it a little bit further down the road,” Hamilton said. “But the jury is out on what’s going to happen with that at this point. ...(Pearl) knows that, by the way.”

Could Friday be the last time Bruce Pearl coaches the Vols? Absolutely, it could.

Hamilton was also asked about recent comments that he would hope to keep Pearl at UT even with a year-long suspension, provided no new incidents came to light.

“We’ve said we want him to be our coach, short of some events that might cause that to not be the case,” Hamilton replied. “If other events arise that cause a change in opinion, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Asked if Pearl was “frustrated” by working without a permanent contract, Hamilton said, “I’m sure he is.”

“But he had a chance to have had a contract back in November and December and we just never got to the finish line,” Hamilton continued. “Now we’ve got the point where we don’t feel like we can do that.”

Hamilton went on to say he and UT’s other decision-makers were “not going to finish our evaluation until after the season is over.” He said several factors, including the timing (if need be) to find a new coach, would be considered.

“I love Bruce Pearl,” Hamilton said. “I think he’s done tremendous things for our basketball program, tremendous things for the Knoxville community, tremendous things for our university. But we’re also in a very unique situation right now, with what we’ve gone through over the last nine months, our notice of allegations, other things we’re looking at with the program.

“We’ll make those kinds of decisions when we finish the NCAA tournament as to how we’re going to move forward."

That’s a lot to soak in at one time.

But none of it should be surprising.

We’ve all known Pearl’s future with the program was anything but certain. That’s not terribly difficult to surmise. Serious NCAA penalties could come down on the coach and his assistants before the end of this calendar year. Many coaches would have already been terminated under these circumstances, but Pearl’s power is such that his administration has mostly stood behind him. But the soothing rhetoric from both sides has subsided for a while now, and the parties have not agreed on a new contract, meaning Pearl is still working under a standard, university-issued letter of appointment. He can be terminated at any time, and seemingly with little penalty on UT’s end, and the recent emergence of an additional off-campus recruiting violation just four days after Pearl’s teary Sept. 10 press conference — while potentially explainable — is at the very least a public relations nightmare.

So yes, we’ve all known Pearl’s future is anything but certain.

But no, if you’ve not publicly stated that before, the week of the NCAA tournament is not the proper time to do it.

Understandably, Hamilton’s comments went viral in minutes Wednesday afternoon. With the printed words accompanied by audio, the message was an open-and-shut case.

The motive, meanwhile, remains a mystery.

And it will almost surely remain that way, considering the almost-always-accessible Hamilton hasn’t responded to phone calls and text messages.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped others from opining. Such is the way of our world. The SEC has become the nation’s most fertile soil to grow conspiracy theories, and this was no exception.

For what it’s worth, here’s my guess — and that’s exactly what it is, a marginally educated guess.

Hamilton went too far. He said more than he meant to say. He started talking, and he couldn’t or didn’t stop.

One can debate the strengths and weaknesses of Hamilton’s tenure as one sees fit, but the man’s character has hardly come into question. He’s not above reproach — who is? — but few who meet him walk away with poor impressions on a personal level. It’s practically impossible. He seems as nice as one can be in this ruthless business at this ridiculously ruthless level. That doesn’t mean he’s the perfect athletic director, but it does mean there’s nothing in his past to indicate any malicious intent with Wednesday’s wackiness.

But the absence of malice does not create the absence of error.

Wednesday’s comments, quite clearly, could not have come at a worse time. Pearl will meet with reporters in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, and national powerhouses Duke and North Carolina will also be in the building. That ensures an already-crowded room will push near its capacity.

And what else will media ask Pearl and his players on that stage tomorrow?

Hamilton’s comments will be the day’s focus. How could they not be?

Pearl will be asked about his future. The team will again be asked about distractions. Some underclassmen will probably be asked whether they’d stay at Tennessee if Pearl leaves.

And, oh, by the way, the No. 9 seed Volunteers open their NCAA tournament Friday afternoon against No. 8 seed Michigan — a team with an intricate, atypical offensive system that requires full focus to defend.

Hamilton’s decision was an accident. Surely, it was an accident.

Why do I think that?

Because if it was anything but an accident, Hamilton maliciously sabotaged his basketball team mere days before it reappeared on the sport’s biggest stage.

I, for one, do not buy that.

I, for one, do not believe Hamilton intended for this to happen.

But everyone, for sure, knows that it has happened.

And no one, for sure, knows what will happen next.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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