That’s the question Tennessee fans need to be asking this morning. Well, that and why has athletic director Mike Hamilton breathed life into the Bruce Pearl controversy in the hours leading up to the NCAA Tournament?
In September, UT officials and Pearl came clean about a number of secondary violations and one very big major violation — lying to NCAA investigators. That’s the greatest sin when it comes to the NCAA and Pearl committed it.
Still, Tennessee officials said that they would stand by their coach. They hit him in the wallet. They took him off the road in recruiting. And they held their ground when America’s media screamed, “Everyone else would have fired their coach!” (Everyone but Ohio State, apparently.)
Then SEC commissioner Mike Slive stepped in and handed down an 8-game suspension which was taken — by all but the most rabid UT fans — as a sign that the commish was trying to help UT by beating the NCAA to its punishment punch. Ask ESPN’s Jay Bilas how he viewed the SEC’s preemptive strike.
For the most part, Tennessee and Hamilton took a beating in the press from September to January. All the while, Hamilton kept saying that the Vols wanted to keep Pearl as long as “there aren’t any major violations we’re unaware of.”
In February, the NCAA’s letter of allegations arrived and it included something that had not been leaked to the media: Pearl and assistant Tony Jones were accused of violating the bump rule with a high school prospect. Pearl lost favor — it seems — by not telling his bosses about the possible violation. (And whether he thought it was a violation or not, when you dig a hole so deep that your bosses are taking heat just for keeping you… you report anything and everything to those people who’ve stuck out their necks for you.)
But here’s the odd part: UT found out about the bump violation — from the NCAA — in November. Yet they continued to stand by Pearl right up until January. And no one gave any indication of a change in attitude until Hamilton’s interview ran on Knoxville radio yesterday afternoon.
(That report set several wheels in motion, by the way. First, it crushed our servers and will force us to upgrade — again — which is a nice problem to have. Second, Twitter was abuzz with news last night. ESPN.com’s Chris Low went on a Nashville radio show and said basically that the writing is on the wall with Pearl. That was translated into “Pearl is out at the end of the year” on Twitter. He might be, but Low, apparently, isn’t flat-out saying that.)
So why would Hamilton and Tennessee change their stance on Pearl, no longer offering him a contract as they had in November and December?
Here are a few possible reasons:
1. Wins and losses matter. If Pearl’s record were no better than predecessor Buzz Peterson’s he’d have been out in September. Is it not then a possibility that some of Pearl’s base has eroded as he’s gone through his worst and most disappointing season as Vol coach? Hard to imagine UT doing a 180 if the Vols were a #1 seed right now.
2. Bad publicity matters. Perhaps the grind of the University of Tennessee being smacked around in the national media has finally taken a toll. If not on Hamilton and the UT administration, then on some of the school’s powerful alumni. Men and women who love the school — not just the basketball program, but the school — probably haven’t liked hearing talking head after talking head running down their alma mater.
3. The NCAA penalties matter. Ah. This might just be the biggest issue. Since the Vols stated so publicly in September that they would stand by their man, Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com did the research and found that 19 out of 20 people hit with unethical conduct charges were slapped with two-year “show cause” bans by the NCAA. The 20th person was already out of coaching. In all 20 cases, the person lost his job. And in all 20 cases the person had lied or asked others to lie to the NCAA.
Pearl is accused of doing both. And if the NCAA wants to hit him with a show cause ban, they can force Tennessee to fire him by dropping a multi-year suspension on him. No program can stay afloat with an interim coach for two or more years.
Interestingly, O’Neil’s report came out in February.
Let’s see. Last public statements in support of Pearl in January… “show cause” report in February… UT announces its decision to reevaluate Pearl’s status at year’s end in March.
It could be that Hamilton and Tennessee don’t like the tea leaves their reading. If the NCAA slaps Pearl with a multi-year suspension, that verdict would likely fall sometime between July (if extremely rushed) or October. As UT’s AD said in his interview, the desire to avoid a late-game coaching search does weigh into things.
It’s also possible — as we said at the time — that Tennessee only angered the NCAA by sticking with Pearl so steadfastly back in September. Might word have gotten back to UT officials that the NCAA would go easier on the school if it would just cut ties with its coach?
As for the timing, perhaps Hamilton and UT are trying to prepare the Vol fanbase for what could go from a “we’ve got your back” position to a “pack your bags” position when the tourney ends.
Either way, Pearl was “caught off-guard” by Hamilton’s comments. Now his team has a new distraction heading into tomorrow’s game with Michigan. And if you’ve seen Tennessee play this year, you know that it’s not a team that needs any additional distractions.