— Take a good look at Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl Wednesday night when the Vols play Memphis. It will be the last time any of us see Pearl on the Tennessee bench for quite some time.
Wednesday you see him. Saturday you don’t.
Is it magic? No, it’s just a suspension. Back in November, Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive suspended Pearl for the first eight SEC games as punishment for violating NCAA rules and providing false information to NCAA investigators.
That’s right, Pearl lied to the NCAA. If that sounds like a bad thing, it is. In the past, getting caught lying to the NCAA has usually resulted in a coach getting fired. If a player lied to the NCAA, you would likely never see that player in a college uniform again. He’d just move on to his pro career, where lying and not cooperating is far more common and acceptable (i.e. Brett Favre vs. the NFL).
For some reason, Pearl still coaches Tennessee even though he has been fired. That’s a fact. Pearl’s “Notice of Termination of Employment Agreement,” dated Sept. 9, 2010, has made its way around the Internet so we can all read it. It says the date of the termination is “October 8, 2010.” But on that date Pearl became “an employee at-will with no definite term of employment and will remain an employee at-will until the University enters into a new employment agreement with you.”
The NCAA still hasn’t ruled on the case. Slive took action as SEC commissioner but that doesn’t mean his preemptive strike was correct. It simply enabled the Tennessee administration to carry on along this ridiculous path that is a black eye on college sports, a shiner brighter than any of those orange jackets Pearl has ever worn during games.
It's nothing more than weak leadership. Jay Bilas said it was a “wait and see” approach. “Wait and hope” might be more accurate. Tennessee essentially is hoping the NCAA will say Slive’s punishment was enough and the whole thing will go away.
That’s really something, isn’t it? I can’t remember another fired coach who has been allowed to continue as the mentor of his team. Of course, starting Saturday Pearl technically won’t be the coach. When the Vols travel to Arkansas, Pearl can’t come inside Bud Walton Arena during that first SEC game.
What a joke.
Pearl gets to be in practice, work his players, prepare them for games and then — based on all the reports — he must leave an arena two hours prior to tipoff and can’t rejoin his team until an hour after the game. Apparently, he won’t be around for meals or walk-throughs on game day.
Pearl says the suspension includes the ban of phone calls, e-mails or text messages at halftime or any other point during a game. “That would include any communication,” Pearl said. We’re not sure how that will be monitored or who will do it. But SEC opponents will have to put their trust in Slive and other conference officials that Pearl won’t be sitting in his hotel room with a laptop computer, diagramming plays and sending them to a student manager via .PDF files.
“I think one of the biggest things that you do as a coach is try to have things in preparation be very similar for your players,” Pearl told reporters Monday. “You try to do it the same, and that’s sort of the approach we’re going to take. We’re going to kind of keep it as business as usual.
“The only thing that will be different on Saturday [is] I won’t be at the arena when we take on Arkansas. We’ll be a man down, but our team and coaching staff will respond.”
Associate head coach Tony Jones will slide into Pearl’s spot on the bench for the eight games he misses. Of course, the suspension is only for SEC games, so Pearl will be back in his usual spot on Jan. 22 when Tennessee plays Connecticut. That’s just another wacky element to this strange suspension.
All eyes will be on the Tennessee players Saturday to see how they respond.
“You know, Bruce being able to be in practice every day and participate in the preparation is going to be a positive,” said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. “The other thing, and it might be a short-term affect, would be that I think the kids will have a cause to come together. Can that last eight games? I don’t know his team, so it’s hard for me to have an opinion on that.”
It was Jan. 10, 2010 when Tennessee walked onto its home court and handed No. 1 Kansas its first loss of the season, an impressive and emotional 76-68 win without four key players lost through suspensions, dismissals and injuries.
“It’s pretty amazing what chemistry can do when guys put their minds to something and know their backs are up against the wall a little bit and they rally, and they don’t quit and they believe in themselves,” Pearl said after beating Kansas.
But Pearl was there that day to help the Vols believe in themselves. There’s no doubt Pearl is a gifted coach, one with the ability to instill hope and draw the X’s and O’s that can pull a team away from that wall. This isn’t about coaching ability. We understand Pearl has elevated Tennessee men’s basketball to a new level and that is why so many want to retain him.
But Pearl made mistakes and the consequences should match. He shouldn’t be slapped on the hand for eight games and then return Feb. 8 at Kentucky. His punishment should be more severe.
Tennessee won its first seven games, including big wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh. Since then the Vols have lost four of six and Pearl has had trouble finding the right rotation, the proper combination of players. The Vols have slacked off defensively and they are fighting to get back into their groove.
This is a time when the Vols need a head coach the most.
When asked his opinion on Pearl’s penalty, Greenberg declined. There isn’t a Division I coach in his right mind who would want to condemn a peer, an institution, or a commissioner for the handling of this case. No one knows when a similar situation will strike close to home.
But the bottom line is this: Bruce Pearl should have been fired when he was terminated. In this day and age, a major program can’t operate with a coach who is an “employee at-will.” It only leads to awkward situations such as the upcoming suspension.
Now he’s here, now he’s not.
It’s not magic. It’s a poor decision. And it’s bad for college basketball.