When Bruce Pearl misled NCAA investigators about the nature of some recruiting transgressions -- impermissible phone calls, the use of unauthorized phones, and improper contact with recruits -- he made what might have been a minor situation much worse. By self-imposing penalties and going public with the issue, Tennessee is now hoping to make a major situation a little bit less so.
That's the real question after today: How harsh will the NCAA's punishment be? What happens now?
You can say this much for the Volunteers and for Pearl himself: Today's damage control came straight from the public relations 101 handbook. Pearl was sincere and repentant in his performance, fully admitting that he made "serious mistakes" in attempting to deceive the NCAA. He took full responsibility for those mistakes. He didn't get defensive. He didn't lash out. He didn't apologize for "confusion" or "misunderstanding." He just apologized.
"I've made some serious mistakes, and for that I'm truly sorry," a Pearl said Friday. "I provided incorrect and misleading information to the NCAA. I've learned some invaluable lessons. After I provided the false and misleading information, subsequently I went back and corrected the record.
"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," he said.
Going back and correcting the record is an important step toward a more lenient approach from the NCAA. So is the punishment Tennessee handed down. A ban on off-campus recruiting and a serious pay cut for Pearl and his staff are the sorts of this-hits-home things the NCAA committee on infractions will have to take into positive consideration.
That said, there's no going back. Pearl lied to investigators. Tennessee's neck now rests directly under the NCAA's impersonal, unfeeling scythe. And while the self-imposed penalties and contrition are nice, they only go so far. Judging by the NCAA's recent behavior -- specifically in the case of Oklahoma State football player Dez Bryant, who failed to fully disclose his relationship with former NFL player Deion Sanders and was suspended for an entire season as a result -- things could get much worse before they get better.
Which is not to say they couldn't already be worse. Pearl could have lost his job. Fans and boosters could have revolted. Fortunately for him, Pearl's presser performance seems to have impressed the locals, or at least the discerning gents at Rocky Top Talk:
This is truly awful, and I'm not even considering the sanctions at this point. I'm talking about watching Pearl fight back tears of embarrassment and shame, which he himself will tell you he deserves, as he took full responsibility for his actions and apologized, saying he let down himself, the University, the fans, and his players. [...]
All that said, I think Pearl deserves a great deal of credit for the way he's handling himself now, and I'm betting that's a huge reason why he's still the coach. No one but Pat Summitt has more good will in the bank at Tennessee than Pearl, and while he may have spent every last penny, he still has a job here, and I, for one, am glad. But if there had been any hint of defensiveness or arrogance about, well, that could very well have been a different story. He says he wants to coach the rest of his career at Tennessee and that he'll never let us down like this again. Call me naive if you like, but I believe him.
That, of course, is good news. But even if fans remain on board, a coach and his basketball program now have bigger issues at stake. Whether those issues will be minor or major is now officially out of Bruce Pearl's hands.