In the end, the right people were punished

August, 24, 2011
8/24/11
3:57
PM ET


The father of the BCS champion quarterback allegedly shopped his son around for six figures.

North Carolina football is bogged down in a quagmire of agent involvement that has cost both the coach and the athletic director their jobs. At Ohio State, the self-proclaimed (vest)ige of virtue has been cast aside amid a threads-for-tattoo scandal. And NCAA investigators are sifting through potential violations at Miami that might be both illegal and immoral.

It almost makes a person nostalgic for the little old barbecue that landed Bruce Pearl in the trash heap. What a quaint, simplistic rule violation that was.

And yet here we are, on Tennessee’s day of reckoning, and Pearl not only is out of work -- he’s almost assuredly out of college athletics for three years, courtesy of a show-cause penalty.

Some folks in and around Knoxville today might cry foul. They will argue that their beloved coach was taken to the cleaners for a silly barbecue and that, compared to the landmines blowing up all across the college athletics countryside, his crime is nothing.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
AP Photo/Wade PayneBruce Pearl was handed a three-year show cause, while Tony Jones (left) was one of three assistants to receive one-year penalties from the NCAA.
It’s true. The barbecue wasn’t a big deal.

The lying afterward was.

That was the kerosene tossed onto this brush fire. Had Pearl merely extended an ill-advised invite to a few recruits and their families, he would have been docked a few recruiting trips and maybe even some scholarships, but he’d still be coaching at the University of Tennessee.

Once he played Peter and denied the invite, denied the picture taken inside his house and denied knowing his assistant coach’s wife (and then even told Aaron Craft's father to deny, deny, deny), he elevated his petty fine to one of felonious proportions.

In the NCAA Committee on Infractions’ report, it is referred to as "unethical conduct." That’s NCAA-speak for lying, and you don’t lie to your parents. You don’t lie to your teachers. You don’t lie to your spouse. And you most certainly don’t lie to the NCAA.

“This case was narrow in scope,’’ COI vice chair Britton Banowsky said on Wednesday's NCAA conference call. “The serious nature relates to the unethical conduct. I’m not sure we would be here were it not for those allegations and those findings.’’

The proof that Pearl was fricasseed by his fibbing more than his barbecuing is evident in the punishments doled out by the COI. Or more accurately, in the punishments not doled out by the COI.

This could have been worse, much worse, for the Volunteers. There could have been more significant scholarship reductions or recruiting limits. There could have been a postseason ban similar to the one imposed at USC.

Instead, the committee accepted the wounds Tennessee inflicted upon itself -- a one-year off-campus recruiting ban for the former staff, a $1.5 million cut in Pearl’s pay plus the SEC’s eight-game ban -- and, for once, punished the actual culprits.

If there has been a common refrain about the NCAA’s punitive measures, it is that the guilty keep right on going while everyone else is left to clean up the scorched earth.

Not in this case. Here Pearl and his assistants were charged with the most egregious offenses -- lying, covering up their lies or impeding the investigation -- and they were punished accordingly.

“It’s important to understand that those who are not forthcoming, who are not cooperative, who are unethical in their response, the committee takes that very seriously and the penalties will be levied appropriately,’’ COI chair Dennis Thomas said.

Certainly Tennessee helped itself by kicking the accused to the curb before the ax fell. Pearl and his staff were dismissed in March, and athletic director Mike Hamilton resigned in June. The AD was an unfortunate but necessary sacrificial lamb. With football also under investigation, keeping the man in charge wouldn’t exactly sell the message that UT was cleaning up its department.

But the good news -- and yes, there is some in Knoxville despite this and the much more sobering news that Pat Summitt has early-onset dementia -- is that there is life after the barbecue.

By reserving its harshest punishments for those who did wrong, the COI allowed new coach Cuonzo Martin the chance to do his job. He will operate under the looming shadow of two years' probation, but that comes into play only should he muck things up. And by all accounts, Martin is admired for his ethical standards as much as his coaching acumen, so odds favor the Vols keeping their record clean.

Probation shouldn’t impede Martin’s ability to grow the program or attract recruits. As he said in May, “As long as there’s no postseason ban, we’ll be OK and we can weather the storm.’’

The Committee on Infractions still has plenty of storms to weather. Its case load grows seemingly by the hour, as do the stakes for some name-brand programs that only wish they were on the hook for hosting a hamburger hoedown.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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