March 22, 2011

David Climer: Bruce Pearl Carried too Much Baggage

This is pure damage control. By firing its most successful and charismatic men's basketball coach in the last 30 years, the University of Tennessee is attempting to minimize sanctions against the school.

Pearl, 51, and members of his Vols coaching staff were responsible for 10 alleged major rules violations uncovered by a 22-month NCAA investigation. Foremost among those alleged violations was Pearl's lying to investigators and then attempting to influence others to give misleading information.

If Pearl remained at UT, heavy punishment from the NCAA was all but certain. With Pearl out, UT is banking on less sweeping sanctions.

What's next? The list of potential candidates to succeed Pearl is all over the map. It includes everyone from Butler Coach Brad Stevens to Boston Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank (a former UT assistant under Kevin O'Neill) to Belmont Coach Rick Byrd, a UT graduate.

Other college coaches whose names are being mentioned include Chris Mooney of Richmond, Buzz Williams of Marquette, Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth, Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M, Chris Mack of Xavier and Cuonzo Martin of Missouri State.

Tennessee has plenty of company among schools that are looking for coaches. There are openings at such high-profile programs as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Providence.

Program has improved

Even with the likelihood of a loss of scholarships or a postseason ban, Pearl leaves the job much better than he found it in March 2005. Due in large part to his work, the men's basketball program is no longer considered a second-class citizen on campus.

Facilities have been greatly upgraded on his watch. Pearl has proved UT can pursue and sign top-tier recruits. His two signees from the early recruiting period this year, Chris Jones and Kevin Ware, are ranked among the top 100 prospects in the nation by most recruiting services.

Even with the NCAA residue he is leaving behind, Pearl is a tough act to follow in terms of success and personality. He took UT men's basketball to unprecedented heights — a No. 1 national ranking in February 2008, six straight NCAA Tournament berths and a run to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2010. Along the way, Pearl generated interest in the program with his personality and salesmanship.

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He promoted UT in ways seldom seen in big-time college athletics. He appeared at a Lady Vols game with his bare chest painted orange. He paid homage to legendary Vols Coach Ray Mears by donning an orange blazer for games against rival programs Kentucky and Vanderbilt. He orchestrated impromptu pep rallies before big games.

Vols fans came along for the ride. With season-ticket sales mushrooming, UT initiated a $19 million renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena and added the $16 million Pratt Pavilion practice facility alongside.

He had it all success, a lucrative contract, popularity. And he threw it all away by lying about a relatively minor rules violation.

He misled investigators

On June 14, 2010, an NCAA investigator asked Pearl if basketball prospect Aaron Craft had attended a cookout at Pearl's home during an unofficial visit to UT on Sept. 20, 2008. Pearl told the investigator that Craft had not attended.

In fact, the NCAA had possession of a photo of Pearl and Craft that had been taken at Pearl's home. It was proof of a rules violation because prospects who are on unofficial visits are not allowed to have off campus contact with members of the coaching staff.

Pearl later requested and received another meeting with NCAA investigators at which time he acknowledged providing false information and corrected his testimony.

But the damage was done. And it was compounded when John Craft, the recruit's father, told investigators he believed Pearl had tried to influence his statements to the NCAA enforcement staff.

Even so, UT officials initially stood behind Pearl. At a Sept. 10, 2010, news conference, UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletics Director Mike Hamilton voiced support of Pearl and indicated he would remain Vols coach even if the NCAA suspended him for a year.

But things changed when the NCAA notice of allegations cited Pearl and associate head coach Tony Jones for the secondary violation of having a two- to three-minute conversation with basketball prospect Jordan Adams during Adams' junior year in high school.

Now comes word that Pearl continued to play by his own rules. On Monday, Cheek issued a statement saying "several instances have occurred that have caused us to change our position."

In his statement, Hamilton noted that there has been a rules violation this month, as well as "a number of more recent non NCAA related incidents" that ultimately led to Pearl's firing.

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