Bruce Pearl prepares for his first visit to Knoxville as Auburn head coach

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It goes without saying that Bruce Pearl was an immensely popular figure during his time as Tennessee head coach, and that remained the case even after he was fired due to violations of NCAA rules that he wasn’t completely honest about when questioned by the NCAA. With the climate being what it was before the Volunteers made their run to the Sweet 16 a season ago, thousands of fans even signed an online petition requesting that Cuonzo Martin be fired with Pearl brought back as his replacement.

Of course none of that happened, with Martin departing for California shortly after last season and Pearl already having accepted the head coaching job at Auburn. Pearl’s past and present will intersect Saturday, as Auburn visits Tennessee. And in a story written by Brandon Marcello of AL.com, Pearl spoke highly of former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton while also expressing remorse over what led to his firing at Tennessee.

Hamilton, who eventually stepped down, spoke highly of Pearl in conversations with Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs while the latter was going through the process of picking a new head coach.

Pearl said Hamilton “did everything to save me and tried to save me” during his final days at Tennessee. The pressure — and the lies — were too much to overcome, however.

Pearl got his second chance three years later at Auburn with some help from Hamilton.

“I’m working every day to reward Jay Jacobs for the decision he made to bring me here,” Pearl said. “I worked every day to reward Mike Hamilton for the decision he made to bring me to Tennessee and for many years Mike benefited from my hiring. But I contributed to Mike being fired and the mistakes I made put Mike and his family in a really bad situation. Tennessee chose to fire me long after I admitted to making the mistakes. They chose to fire Mike also. I accept some responsibility for the good, the bad and the ugly.”

While Tennessee, now led by Donnie Tyndall, is looking to earn a return trip to the NCAA tournament despite lacking much in the way of interior size. The Volunteers have dropped two straight games however, which makes Saturday’s contest a very important one for them.

As for Auburn, Pearl’s first season has been a struggle as many expected in the fall. But with a solid recruiting class lined up for next season, fans are excited about the future on The Plains. Pearl managed to take the Tennessee program places it had rarely been in the past, and in the case of their No. 1 national ranking during the 2007-08 season a place it had never been, before things took a turn for the worse.

As some fans may look at the sight of Pearl on the Auburn bench and think back to what could have been, he’ll continue to work towards reviving his current program.