Bruce Pearl May Be Untouchable by NCAA As Long As Tennessee Wants Him

Mark HancockContributor IIIDecember 23, 2010

Should Bruce Pearl Get An Ironclad Lifetime Contract With Tennessee?
Should Bruce Pearl Get An Ironclad Lifetime Contract With Tennessee?Elsa/Getty Images

The saga of Tennessee Head Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl's NCAA violations is a story in which the final chapter has yet to be written. Wouldn't it be ironic if the outcome is such that the NCAA is powerless to add additional sanctions on the man at the helm of the Volunteers?

You would have to have been totally out of touch with what is going on in college basketball to not know something about what has been happening with Pearl. The tireless promoter of the Big Orange Nation is one of the best coaches in the business. He just won his 450th game as a head coach this month.

Pearl infamously turned in Illinois for recruiting violations when he was an assistant to Dr. Tom Davis at Iowa. For doing the right thing, he was blackballed in his profession.

From that point forward, Pearl became a marked man, not only by his colleagues, but by any who targeted him and expected perhaps too much of him, holding him to a higher standard than any other coach. When it was revealed this year that he had contacted recruits excessively by phone, had them at his home for dinner and then lied about it to NCAA investigators, many gleefully hoped Pearl would be drummed out of coaching.

Tennessee, however, decided to stick with Pearl. In the state where country music was born, one of the most popular songs of all time in that genre is titled, "Stand By Your Man," and that's certainly what UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletics Director Mike Hamilton have done. 

Pearl had self-imposed some recruiting restrictions on his own. Tennessee added more such restrictions on both him and his staff, and also took away substantial pay and bonuses from them. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, apparently dissatisfied with that and in a move that ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas has labeled "stupid," decided to move prematurely to the conclusion of the NCAA investigation into all of this, flex his newly-granted muscle and suspend the Vol mentor from half of his conference games to boot.

However, that may be where the sanctions, at least as they apply to Pearl, come to a screeching halt. Right now, he's working under a memorandum of understanding and not a formal contract. Apparently both his attorneys and UT's lawyers can't agree on language as to what his future employment will entail.

While UT has made it clear it wants to keep Pearl, who keeps winning and filling up the seats in Thompson-Boling Arena and making a huge profit for the school's basketball program in the big business of college athletics, they want to protect themselves from any further downside. Pearl, on the other hand, clearly wants to stay on in Big Orange Country, and wants to be protected from any firing that might result from any action the NCAA might take.

It's unclear when the NCAA is going to finalize its investigation and recommend penalties to be levied on Pearl and the University. However, it's increasingly clear that as long as Pearl has a contract with UT, the NCAA may be legally powerless to interfere with that relationship.

As the Cam Newton controversy has demonstrated at Auburn, the NCAA and SEC, despite having reams of rules to be followed, still have loopholes to be addressed. Strangely, Commissioner Slive has been taken to task for his inaction in the Newton case, as well as his over-reaction to the Pearl matter. As an attorney himself, he may be hedging his bets.

Remember that Tennessee hired Slive's own former law firm, the Glazier group in Chicago, as their attorneys in advising them in coming to agreement over what penalties to self-impose on themselves. Presumably, those penalties were decided upon in consultation with the NCAA, which is why UT was very publicly upset that the Commissioner decided to levy penalties beyond that on his own.

The NCAA is moving into uncharted waters in trying to figure out what it can and can't do in regards to Pearl. When they issued an order requiring Kelvin Sampson to get prior NCAA approval before he could be hired by another school as a college coach, he had already been let go by Indiana.

In Pearl's case, however, he will presumably soon have a contract with Tennessee. As long as UT and he want to continue to honor the terms, it might be Pearl's best insurance against being suspended from coaching.

It's uncertain whether the NCAA can legally demand or require that the Vols end their contractual relationship with their head coach. If they tried to do so, they would open themselves up to potential legal actions that they would be hard-pressed to win.

It might behoove Pearl to negotiate as long a contract as he can this time around. It might be the only thing that protects him from an axe that might otherwise fall on his head.

Of course, nothing prevents the NCAA from imposing sanctions on the school for things Pearl and his staff have done. They could reduce scholarships, continue recruiting restrictions and put the basketball program on probation.

However, it is very problematical legally whether the NCAA, a voluntary association, can attempt to tell one of its member institutions of higher education that it has to fire one of its coaches. This is new ground being plowed here. 

Any severe sanction that the NCAA might try to levy against Pearl could be tossed out in court if Pearl and/or the University choose to challenge it. Would the NCAA risk losing on the issue in a very public way?

What sort of message is the NCAA going to send in this case? When will they act? How much power do they really have now that they've lost other cases in which they didn't follow due process of law such as with Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV?

The world of contract law can be a murky one. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and whether true justice is served for everyone involved.

Memo to Bruce Pearl's attorneys: Maybe you should look into getting Pearl a "lifetime" contract at UT, with rollover provisions for the next 20 years. The NCAA might not be able to interfere with that at all. Memo to Tennessee's legal counsel: If you want to keep Bruce and don't want the NCAA to meddle in the decisions you make, maybe you should give him such a contract. Food for thought!