Tennessee Will Keep Bruce Pearl at Basketball Helm No Matter What NCAA Decides

Mark HancockContributor IIIFebruary 28, 2011

Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl Prowling the Sidelines in His Big Orange Blazer in Honor of Legendary Coach Ray Mears
Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl Prowling the Sidelines in His Big Orange Blazer in Honor of Legendary Coach Ray MearsAndy Lyons/Getty Images

The University of Tennessee's administration has made the decision to keep Bruce Pearl at the helm of its men's basketball program no matter what NCAA sanctions are placed on the school or their coach.

That much is now obvious after the letter of allegations received from the governing body uncovered no new serious violations other than those that have been reported ad infinitum in the national media for months now.

Everyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows by now that Pearl and his staff made some impermissible phone calls to recruits, something that many schools are cited for routinely as secondary violations. Also, he had an infamous barbecue at his home in which two recruits who had made verbal commitments to him were guests, a violation since they were juniors instead of seniors in high school at the time—hardly a major infraction, either.

The rub came when Pearl was confronted with the evidence, in which he should have known that the investigators caught him red-handed in these minor violations.  But he chose to lie about them. Moreover, he also solicited others to lie about them, including his staff and even one of the recruit's parents.

However, Pearl did correct the record and admitted his transgressions. He has already been suspended from recruiting for a year, with his staff receiving similar suspensions.

The Southeastern Conference Commissioner took the unprecedented step of suspending him from coaching half of this season's league games as well. Pearl and his staff have also had their salaries reduced by significant amounts.

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Despite all these sanctions self-imposed by the University and by the SEC, the NCAA is the final arbiter, which is why the conference acting prematurely was "stupid," as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas characterized them.

Pearl's program is one of the best in the nation. It will continue to be despite whatever sanctions the NCAA chooses to levy to try to cripple it.

Recruiting, by all accounts, appears to still be going well. After all, the recruits who are at the heart of this investigation are two of the best college basketball freshmen in the nation and are playing for two of the country's top teams, Kansas and Ohio State.

Had those athletes kept their own word to Pearl, all of this would be a non-story and both might have missed a couple of games as Tennessee freshmen for coming to Pearl's house for dinner. It's unfortunate that the players lied to the coaches recruiting them, too.

Pearl put a target on his back by turning in Illinois for recruiting violations over two decades ago when he was an assistant to Dr. Tom Davis at Iowa. He was shunned by many in his profession for doing the right thing, and now many are gleefully trying to dance on his coaching grave now that the tables are turned.

However, unlike the Kelvin Sampson situation, in which Indiana summarily fired him when his violations were revealed, Tennessee has chosen to "stand by their man," as the late country music singer Tammy Wynette famously crooned.

In doing so, the Volunteers have risked having a tarnished image in the media. The Big Orange brass have concluded that risk is worth the rewards that Pearl brings to campus.

Pearl took the school to its first-ever Elite Eight appearance last season. He has guided them to Sweet Sixteens about every other year.

SEC Championship banners for which Pearl is responsible hang in Thompson-Boling Arena, which is filled to its 22,000 capacity nearly every game in Knoxville. He is the second winningest coach in Vol history, trailing only the legendary Ray Mears, who in honor of he wears a Big Orange blazer for key games.

Thus, it's no surprise that UT has chosen to keep Pearl on The Hill. The NCAA may choose to suspend their coach for more games next season, or perhaps for a full season and beyond.

But no matter what the future holds, Tennessee has decided to keep Pearl and weather the storm with him guiding them through it. And why not?

After all, Pearl isn't guilty of paying players. He didn't use underhanded recruiting tactics to get top recruits on campus and get them to commit to playing for him.

Bruce is well-liked by everyone who truly knows him. Who among us hasn't shaded the truth to gain an advantage in a personal or professional situation?

Pearl is an emotional man and is a tireless promoter of the school and its basketball program. Hall of Fame Coach Pat Summitt, who has never had a hint of trouble in her women's basketball program that has won more National Championships than any other in history, is in full support of her colleague.

No one endorses lying. However, as the Holy Bible admonishes us all, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Pearl's positives definitely outweigh his negatives. He is too smart to have made such stupid mistakes.

Bernie Pearl, the coach's father, told me early on in Bruce's career at UT that his son wanted to build a program and remain the coach at Tennessee as long as Coach Ray Mears did. That would mean he has at least nine more seasons to go to make good on that promise, as he is only in his sixth season in Knoxville. Mears had a 15-year tenure with the Vols, beating arch-rival Kentucky more than any other coach in history.

Ironically, I take both Bernie and Bruce at their word. That might sound strange, to trust someone who admittedly lied to investigators.

However, again, you have to know Pearl personally to realize that he has earned the right to redeem himself, not just in the eyes of the NCAA, the SEC, or the media, but in the hearts and souls of the Big Orange family that has stood behind him through all of this turmoil. East Tennesseans are fiercely independent but they are also fiercely loyal to each other.

The NCAA is in uncharted waters as they consider this case. New ground is being plowed. Going overboard in their punishment would be a mistake, as Tennessee might very well sue them on appeal. The NCAA's record in court traditionally is poor.

Remember that the Tennessee Volunteers got their nickname by far exceeding their quota when the call went out for troops to volunteer for America's wars in the past. When one of their own is threatened, Vols rally around and are ready to fight at the drop of a hat.

Tennessee's proud fighting tradition is one of excellence. The school has as much support and stellar facilities as any in the nation.

My bet is that Pearl will retire years from now after completing a long career as one of the game's top coaches. And all of the rest of that career, to the confounding and consternation of Tennessee's rivals, will be in the heart of Big Orange Country. Somehow I think my old friend and mentor, the late Mears, who was a great admirer of General George Patton (another great but flawed leader of men), would be proud of that.