Bruce Pearl: Cover-up and Consequences

The job Bruce Pearl has done at Tennessee over the last five years is simply remarkable -- Pearl took over a UT program that had been to the NCAA Tournament four times in the 16 years prior to his arrival; Pearl took over a UT program that had averaged 16 wins and 15 losses in the 16 years prior to his arrival; Pearl took over a UT program that had won 84 games and lost 82 in SEC play the previous 11 years; Pearl took over a UT program that had been to two NCAA Sweet 16's between 1980 and 2005; Pearl took over a UT program that at times struggled to fill cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena to 10,000 less than capacity; Pearl took over a program with no sizzle. 

And what has Pearl accomplished in his five years at the head of the Volunteer basketball program -- He's averaged 25 wins and nine losses; He's led the Vols to five NCAA Tournaments; He's led to Vols to two NCAA Sweet 16's and one Elite Eight; He's won 57 SEC games to only 23 losses; He elevated Tennessee to a No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history (2008); He's overseen a Vol program which regularly finds itself in the Top 25, and he's tirelessly promoted the Tennessee basketball program with his gregarious personality, and exciting style of play resulting, in a mostly filled home arena.  Where there was once no sizzle, Pearl lit an inferno.

But my, how the mighty among us have fallen.

Recapping the Carnage

On September 10, 2010 a contrite and seemingly remorseful Pearl held a press conference proclaiming he had lied to NCAA investigators during the course of their 17-month long inquiry.  The investigation centered on a) the illegal hosting of recruits by Pearl in 2008, b) impermissible phone calls made to recruits by the UT coaching staff (including Pearl), and c) official (recruit) on-campus visits that lasted longer than allowed.  According to UT athletic director Mike Hamilton's Notice of Termination of Employment Agreement memo (NTEA), sent to Pearl the day before his press conference, the NCAA found Pearl to have fractured countless NCAA bylaws, and then lie about it to NCAA enforcement staff.  Hamilton states in the NTEA, "Your conduct failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance within the men's basketball program ... "  Making matters worse for Pearl,  Hamilton also included this indictment of his head basketball coach in the NTEA, "Chancellor (Dr. Jimmy) Cheek and I have determined that you engaged in gross misconduct, including dishonesty and other acts involving intolerable behavior."

In essence, Pearl held a barbecue, at his home, in which five high school junior recruits and their families attended.  The only problem, the NCAA does not allow a coach to host, at his home, any athlete that is not at least a senior in high school.  Furthermore, Pearl knew this was a violation -- The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee self-reported an identical Pearl violation in 2004 -- and told the barbecue attendees as much, in addition to asking the players and their families to keep quiet about the "illegal" event.

Mike Hamilton put it this way in the NTEA, "You (Pearl) also told the unofficial visitors and their families that you were not going to tell anyone about the NCAA rules violations and you asked that they not tell anyone either."

The NCAA investigators first talked to at least one UT assistant basketball coach about the barbecue, and confronted the coach with a photograph.  A photograph of Pearl and a recruit, taken at Pearl's house during the luncheon.  Like any good soldier, the assistant coach told Pearl of the photo and the line of questioning the NCAA took.  Pearl, though, when questioned in June of 2010, and in a bout of extreme stupidity, denied to the NCAA that any such barbecue ever took place, and said he didn't recognize where the picture had been taken, even though it was in his own home.

Compounding Pearl's problems is a phone call he made to the father of one of the players who attended the barbecue.  The intent of the call was to "remind" the father that the outing, and his son's presence at Pearl's home, ran counter to NCAA bylaws, and that Pearl told them as much at the gathering, and that he and his son had a choice to attend, or not attend. 

Squarely in the Cross-hairs

I would have so much more respect for Pearl if, when busted, he had come out and said, "Yeah, I hosted a barbecue at my home for junior recruits, and I don't think there is anything wrong with it because it's a stupid rule.  There, I said it."

But no, Pearl chose the path least successful.  He orchestrated a cover-up, which as well all know, is bound to fall apart, and most times (particularly true here) is worse than the actual "crime."  As I see it -- and I don't take this contention lightly -- the UT athletic administration has no choice but to terminate Pearl the minute the NCAA findings are released.  How can the Tennessee administration, in good conscience, take any other course of action?  More to the core of point, though -- Why wait for the findings from the NCAA to end the relationship?  ESPN.com's Andy Katz, in this piece on Pearl, states, "Pearl can't be terminated for cause until the NCAA issues a 'finding' which shows Pearl 'knowingly engaged in conduct that was a significant NCAA violation.'" 

Shouldn't be a problem -- Lying to the NCAA, asking recruits and recruits' parents to lie, hosting an "illegal" barbecue which Pearl knew beforehand was a violation, along with nearly 100 impermissible staff phone calls, and official, on-campus visits which lasted longer than allowed ... Significant?  Absolutely ... and quite frankly, taken as a whole, it's an alarming level of deceit.  And certainly significant enough for UT to self-impose a 1.5 million dollar reduction in Pearl's salary, as well as issue severe recruiting limitations for Pearl and his coaching staff.  But, none of that will matter, or at least it shouldn't.  After all,  Pearl has so thoroughly obliterated any real or imagined line-in-the-sand which any self-respecting coach should never cross, that the self-imposed sanctions will be only the initial drizzle of what will surely become a monsoon of NCAA-mandated restrictions.

But why?  Why did Pearl find it necessary to engage in such unscrupulous conduct?  During his five years at Tennessee he became the shining light, the star of the Volunteer athletic program in a time that saw a gradual decline in the heralded UT football program.  He attracted top-flight recruits, played a player-friendly style, was an overwhelming hit with the fan base, and the win-loss column and attendance figures proves that point. 

Taking part in such detrimental conduct, when he so obviously had everything the college basketball world has to offer -- a fat contract, adoring fans, and talented players pining to come to Knoxville -- is as self-defeating as anything Eddie Sutton ever did at Kentucky.  It leaves one only to shake ones head in bewilderment.

Squarely in the Cross-hairs, Part 2

Further complicating matters for those who root for UT basketball (and football for that matter) is the curious behavior of UT AD Mike Hamilton. 

Instead of Hamilton taking the stage 10 minutes prior to Pearl at the September 10 presser, and sharing the contents of the NTEA with all the world, Hamilton took the same disingenuous path traveled by Pearl.  Hamilton, the head of the Tennessee athletic department, didn't reveal the contents of the NTEA, or that one had even been issued, until a Knoxville television station got a court order for its release late last week.

The "gi-normous" elephant in the room is this: Why would Hamilton choose to NOT make the NTEA and its contents public?  I can't fathom it being because he's happy with his coach -- Clearly evident in the NTEA was the fact that Hamilton was very unhappy with Pearl and his actions.  In fact, so unhappy that he rightfully terminated Pearl's contract.  So, what was Hamilton's motivation for keeping the truth out of the public eye?  Particularly, those who cheer for the orange and white; they deserve to know the truth. 

Perhaps Hamilton was only attempting to buy time, perhaps he thought he would be blamed for hiring Pearl, and that, coupled with the Lane Kiffin disaster, would hasten an end to his tenure.  Whatever rationalization Hamilton used in convincing himself to keep the specifics of the matter private, he had to know that eventually the truth would come out.

Hamilton, like Pearl, chose unwisely.  Instead of being transparent with his fan base, he instead chose to be perceived as complicit in the public cover-up of Pearl's egregious acts by not being completely forthright with the UT faithful ... until forced to do so.  Surely shameless, but not blameless.

The Truth, and Consequences

Everyone I know makes mistakes.  Some bigger than others, some more impacting on other people's lives.  But, the hard to accept truth is that we are all human, we are all apt to make regretful decisions. 

Not everyone, though, is held to the same standard of accountability.  Like it or not, that's just the way it is.  And when someone who has been blessed with a high salary, and serves a leadership role of utmost importance, and is the recipient of adoration and fame (Pearl is probably the most popular public figure in Tennessee), well, when someone holding such a lofty office makes a mess of things, lies, and asks others to lie, I see no other acceptable resolution but to show that person the door.

I wish no man to be without employment, but Pearl will land on his feet.  As for the University of Tennessee, the world is watching.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

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