University of Tennessee Entangled in Web of Bruce Pearl Lies to NCAA

Cliff PotterCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2010

ST. LOUIS - MARCH 28: Head coach Bruce Pearl of the Tennessee Volunteers directs his team against the Michigan State Spartansduring the midwest regional final of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Edward Jones Dome on March 28, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After Friday's confession by University of Tennessee Head Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl that he had lied to the NCAA, there was little that needed to be said. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton could have easily indicated that the situation was still under review and that there would be more to say at a later date. And that would have ended matters. Pearl would have been prohibited from making any other comment other than the fact that he lied and that he deeply regretted doing so. And Hamilton would have been clear of any involvement.

Instead, incredibly, the matter became even more entangled by Pearl and Hamilton. Even UT Knoxville Campus Chancellor Jimmy Cheeks did not help the University of Tennessee cause by his support for Hamilton.  

At this point, Pearl's admitted confession concerning his own morals should be enough to require the termination of his UT contract. The confusion that occurred regarding what statements were false and the clear misstatement concerning past investigations also call for the termination of Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton.

How can there be any other outcome? 

Pearl's lies apparently began when Pearl was interviewed by the NCAA in connection with excessive contacts with recruits. According to reports, these illegal contacts occurred during phone conversations. Pearl apparently called recruits far in excess of the number of times permitted to take place under NCAA rules.

But recent revelations indicate that the lie was not about these phone calls, but instead about whether he recognized where he was in a photograph with a recruit. It turned out the picture was made during an unofficial visit. It was taken in front of Pearl's home. And the NCAA already knew where it had been taken.

Incredibly, the University of Tennessee claims that the lies were less serious because they were eventually repudiated by the liar. Yes, Bruce Pearl lied about his violation of NCAA contact rules for juniors. But no, his lies are not that bad because he later confessed to his own lies.

Let's get this straight. Lying is bad, but lying and not confessing later is worse. So the University of Tennessee would have us believe.

Yet this is not the worst of the statements being made by those involved with Bruce Pearl and his lies. The worst comes from the perpetrator himself. According to Pearl, “I learned that it’s not OK to tell the truth most of the time, but you’ve got to tell the truth all of the time.”

Let's get this straight. A coach making millions by teaching his players and molding them into people with proper morals believed it is acceptable to tell the truth most but not all of the time. He only learned it was necessary to tell the truth all the time because of the NCAA investigation.

What are we to presume that this bare-chested Tennessee orange painted coach loudly proclaiming to be the essence of the University of Tennessee taught his players over the past several years? That it is fine to lie as long as you do it only once in a while? Even if the lie is a big one to enforcement officers?

For that matter, what lies are we talking about here? The Friday press conference seemed to create even more confusion that could itself be considered at the very least misleading and at worst an outright lie.

During the press conference, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton recognized a distinction between lies that are not retracted by the liar and those that are. Hamilton claimed he was unable to find an NCAA case where a coach acknowledged wrongdoing before being punished, arguing that this made the Pearl situation different from any other situation. Not only did this contention appear clearly incorrect as a matter of fact both because most others have never lied to the NCAA and because others have confessed before NCAA punishment, it also failed to take Pearl to task for evoking some claim that he never knew it was not acceptable to lie to authorities. And the entire conference was conducted as if the issue was the phone calls. The photograph was not initially reported by the press. This happened only later, after others made more revelations about what had taken place.

According to Knoxville Campus Chancellor Jimmy Cheeks, "It's Mike's job to make absolutely certain that our coaches absolutely understand what our expectations are. I am confident that he has faced this issue head on. He has been proactive in administering penalties, and he has made very, very tough decisions." Perhaps. But what about the issues involved in Pearl's own standards and Hamilton's own actions and claims? If these are false and inappropriate, does Hamilton still stay?

We know Hamilton almost certainly approved Bruce Pearl's statement before it was made to the press. How could any athletic director anywhere have allowed any coach to believe that lying some of the time was permissible, particularly to any authority of any kind? 

Even after Pearl allegedly came clean, the press conference was conducted in such a way that it mislead the public into believing that this had something to do with the excessive phone calls. Perhaps it does, but it did not disclose the real lie involved. The lie about the fact that he knew full well where the picture was taken. It was after all his own house.

Surely, the central issue in this and other NCAA investigations is involved in the Pearl situation. What should happen if someone in authority at the school under investigation lies to the NCAA?

The Pearl statements provide the NCAA with a bright line that needs to be drawn. If Pearl is not fired by Hamilton or others at the University of Tennessee before they release their report, then the NCAA should require his termination. How else will anyone be able to sanction liars in the future and ensure the integrity of the investigation process? And how in the world could lying to authorities of any kind be acceptable as long as the person does not lie all the time?

It is not too much of a stretch to find the essence of Pearl's statements in recent actions by athletes at the University of Tennessee. The disregard for authority. The disregard of the law. And these are not the only places where such attitudes seem to have become entrenched. Only by striking hard and fast at a coach who lies and a school who countenances such lies by keeping the coach can the NCAA retain the essence of its mission and send a clear signal to its members. 

The answer is that not only is Hamilton dead wrong about his assessment, there should be no safety net after lying. Once one lies to the NCAA the only action should be termination. If cheating on tests allows the expulsion of a student, how can lying to the NCAA result in keeping the liar in a position of trust and influence?