- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Thanks to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's acquisition of Tennessee's response to the NCAA's notice of allegations, we get to take a peek at yet more details from Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl's conversations with investigators in June of 2010.
This morning, the big news was Pearl's interactions with recruit Jordan Adams in the "bump" violation incident that eventually forced Tennessee's administrative hand. On Saturday, News-Sentinel reporter Andrew Gribble also published the exact nature of Pearl's discussions with investigators when he was originally asked about the infamous photo of he and then-Tennessee recruit Aaron Craft. Contrary to popular opinion, Pearl wasn't caught off guard by the photo. In fact, he knew about it before the NCAA presented it to him. But he still panicked and lied about it anyway. From the report (warning: long blockquote dead ahead):
"Have you, and I apologize, this is a grainy photo that we received in our office, and I received this through e-mail just to let you know," Thompson said, looking at Pearl. "But, um, we received this picture and it purports to be you with Aaron Craft.
"Do you have any recollection of that incident or maybe where this picture was maybe taken from and..."
"That's Aaron, that's me," Pearl said. "I don't really know where that's taken."
"OK," Thompson said. "Any place on campus but you don't know?"
"Do you recognize the woman that's in the picture?" he asked, referring to a shot of Jana Shay, the wife of Pearl's assistant coach Jason Shay, positioned with her head down in the background.
"No," Pearl said. "I really don't."
"Coach," Glazier said, "is that in your home any place?"
"No," Pearl said.
"OK," Thompson said.
As Gribble writes, that was the beginning of the end of the Pearl era. Had he come clean right away, the Tennessee coach might well have saved his job. At the very least, the violations he incurred on that day -- hosting junior recruits in an informal meeting at his house, providing free food and beverage, allowing current players to mingle with prospects, and so on -- would have likely been deemed minor by the Committee on Infractions. Pearl might have served a suspension. He might have faced additional inquiries. But it's unlikely his mistakes would have roiled Tennessee's program to the point that it eventually felt compelled to fire its most successful coach in school history. Pearl certainly wouldn't be facing the indignity of a possible show-cause penalty, the one-time whistleblower now the poster child for what happens when you decide to lie to the NCAA.
What remains impossible to understand is just what Pearl was thinking, exactly. In his many interviews since, even he doesn't seem to know. At some point, given the conversations detailed in this report, it seems he assumed the issue would just go away. But he also knew the NCAA's information was potentially damaging; that's why he called Craft's father, John, to see what the Crafts planned on saying to the NCAA:
"I said, 'Well, coach, you know, if we're asked we will tell what is the best of our ability, you know, the recollection of what happened that afternoon, that day, that visit,'" John Craft said during an interview with Thompson. "He right away said 'Well, John, we,' his tone kinda changed and it was like, uh, 'Well, we — I've had a discussion with my staff and,' uh, 'we remember the visit and we remember telling you that we were going out for an informal cookout at my house and that it was illegal for you to be there.'
"And I said, 'Coach, if that's your story then,' you know, 'we're gonna have two.'"
[...] Pearl stressed that he was not instructing Craft to lie, but understood how others could imply the situation that way.
"Obviously," Pearl said in a follow-up interview with the NCAA, "I made a bad decision in calling John."
Among many others. Obviously.
By then, of course, the damage was done, and there was no choice but to go back to the NCAA and come clean on the photograph. But this was a big lie. You can't tell the NCAA you don't recognize your own house. From there on out, you're done. The NCAA might be understanding if you broke some vague minor recruiting restrictions, even if you're a veteran coach who knows better (and even if you did so in a somewhat brazen way).
But you can't tell recruits not to talk about those visits, and you certainly can't sit in a meeting with NCAA investigators and pretend you don't recognize your own domicile. The fact that this would even seem like a route worth pursuing at all is consistent with the recurring theme of this entire story, especially now that we're seeing the actual conversations Pearl had with the NCAA: It's just unbelievably baffling.
Could Tennessee -- with Pearl at the helm -- have possibly handled this worse? It is a bungle of immense proportions, and the more one reads about it, the worse and worse it seems.