Former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl should be coaching right now.
At least that’s what former college basketball coach Tom Penders thinks.
“He should be in Miami right now on the recruiting trail,” said Tom Penders, who resigned from the University of Houston in 2010 after 648 Division I basketball wins. The University of Miami is currently looking for a new men’s basketball coach.
In a exclusive interview with Bleacher Report, Penders sounded off on both the Pearl situation and difficulties all college coaches face in today’s profession.
Penders, who recently co-authored a book with Steve Richardson entitled Dead Coach Walking: Tom Penders Surviving and Thriving in College Hoops, said college basketball coaches are sometimes unfairly blamed for not following the NCAA’s trivial rules.
In his mind, Penders said the NCAA focuses too much minor violations instead of attacking programs that cheat.
“(The NCAA) is not dealing with stuff that really matters,” Penders said. “The rulebook doesn’t deal with NCAA basketball. There’s so many rules that need to be tossed out.”
Some of the punishment Penders thinks should be lightened up on are two that led to Pearl’s demise: excessive phone calls to recruits and illegal contact with recruits.
“When you look at (Pearl’s) violation, it’s Tiddly Winks,” Penders said. “It’s not like he has a substance abuse problem. He jaywalked and got life.”
If there’s anyone who can relate to Pearl, it’s Penders.
Both rose up through mid-majors before taking over programs known as football schools with low interest and attendance.
Penders parlayed a Sweet 16 run at Rhode Island in 1988 into the Texas job a year later, while Pearl did the same after his stint at Milwaukee, landing the Tennessee job after a Sweet 16 performance in 2005.
Both used their enthusiasm to develop a fan base and had immediate success at their new schools. Penders led Texas to a 25-9 record his first year, while Pearl’s first year at Tennessee resulted in a 22-8 record. Texas and Tennessee both advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in their first year.
During the tenure at their football schools, Penders advanced to the Elite Eight once and had one Sweet 16 appearance. Pearl took the Volunteers to three Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight.
Controversy followed both. Penders’ tenure at Texas ended after after a losing season in which he had a defibrillator implanted into his heart and was forced out after someone illegally released a player’s grades to the media.
Pearl’s well documented cover-up of minor NCAA rules violations ultimately cost him his job at Tennessee. He will learn if he will be able to coach again sometime after a hearing with the NCAA in June.
Both had great relationships with their athletic directors up until the time of their departures.
Penders said he had a great relationship with Texas AD DeLoss Dodds for 10 years up until the months leading to his resignation.
After Tennessee’s violations were uncovered, AD Mike Hamilton cut Pearl’s pay and limited his off-campus recruiting, all while showing his support for the coach.
Hamilton’s support publicly waned in the week leading up to the Volunteers’ first round NCAA tournament loss to Michigan.
Penders said a coach has to be able to trust his athletic director and was highly critical of Hamilton’s actions.
“I think Tennessee acted very erratically,” Penders said. “I believe in accountability and after (Hamilton) did a 180 I wouldn’t trust him. I wouldn’t think about working for a man like that.”
Penders went on to have moderate success at George Washington and Houston, taking both to the NCAA tournament.
It’s unknown where and when Pearl’s next stop will be, and Penders thinks it’s a shame.
“(Pearl’s) a victim of the system but really good coaches last and good people last,” Penders said. “We live in a forgiving society and someone will see the great program he built (at Tennessee). It’s unfortunate that one wrong move and your name is mud.”