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So what now? Will Bruce Pearl survive?

2/23/2011

The NCAA Committee on Infractions has been busy. On Tuesday, as the college hoops world debated Jim Calhoun's alleged crime and too-lenient punishment, the COI was in the process of sending another program -- Tennessee -- its long-awaited notice of allegations. Twenty-two months after the start of the investigation, we now know exactly what the NCAA believes Bruce Pearl, the men's basketball program and the former Lane Kiffin-led football program has done wrong.

Still, though, the question remains: Will Pearl survive?

Let's begin with the actual notice, which you can read right here. The basketball-related charges are as follows:

  • "Impermissible contact with prospective student-athletes resulting from a cumulative total of 96 impermissible phone calls over a 24-month period (Aug. 1, 2007 through July 29, 2009).

  • "By the head men's basketball coach: impermissible contact with prospective student-athletes during an unofficial visit, acting contrary to the principles of ethical conduct, failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance, and failure to monitor the activities regarding compliance of all assistant coaches within the men's basketball program.

  • "By the head men's basketball coach and associate head coach: impermissible contact with a prospective student-athlete at his high school.

  • "By the three members of the men's basketball assistant coaching staff: failure to furnish full and complete information relevant to the investigation."

Those are serious allegations, especially where Tennessee's creamsicle-jacketed coach is concerned. The NCAA is alleging that Pearl, in his decision to lie to NCAA investigators about hosting prospective recruits at a barbecue at his house (before his eventual decision to correct the record), acted "contrary to the principles of ethical conduct," failed "to promote an atmosphere of compliance" and failed "to monitor" the rest of what was going on in his program. These are some of the most serious charges the NCAA can allege against a coach and his program; merely one of them got Calhoun tainted, if not actually punished, less than 24 hours ago.

There are a few new tidbits in the notice, which our own Andy Katz pointed out in his excellent breakdown of the allegations this afternoon. From Andy:

The one new charge revealed in the notice of allegations was that Pearl and associate head coach Tony Jones were cited for a secondary violation of "bumping" 2012 recruit Jordan Adams (Lawrenceville, Ga.), on Sept. 14, 2010, during Adams' junior year when the two visited Adams at Oak Hill Academy.

According to the report, Pearl and Jones had a two-to-three-minute conversation with Adams prior to the start of basketball practice. The violation with Adams came shortly after Pearl and Tennessee held a news conference announcing the self-imposed penalties. Pearl was allowed to recruit on the road for two-plus weeks before he was shut down for a year on Sept. 24.

That's not good. Neither is this, which isn't new but is disconcerting all the same:

The report states that Pearl also called John Craft, Aaron's father, who was also at the unofficial visit to Pearl's home on Sept. 20, 2008, and told him that it was a violation for the family to attend the cookout. Unofficial visits are supposed to take place on campus, not at a coach's home.

Pearl gave John Craft the choice of attending the cookout. According to the report, John Craft was led to believe that Pearl was trying to influence his statements to the NCAA enforcement staff.

There is little to no wiggle-room here. Not only has Pearl admitted that he lied to investigators about the cookout at his house, the NCAA has apparently found enough evidence to prove that Pearl knew the cookout was against the rules after the fact and attempted -- at least according to John Craft -- to influence testimony from involved parties to that effect. There is no possible way for Pearl to play the age-old, "My assistants went rogue, I had no idea!" card. Pearl knew. He admits he knew. He admits he lied. He hopes his decision to correct the lie means something to the NCAA, and he hopes the rest of Tennessee's alleged recruiting violations can be forgiven in kind.

In other words, there is really nothing new in this report. This is the same stuff the public -- and Tennessee -- has known about Pearl since this whole ill-advised barbecue mess became public last year.

Which brings us to whether Pearl will keep his job. That answer seems to be … yes. Probably.

How so? How does a man who openly admitted lying to NCAA investigators -- not to mention all the other stuff listed above -- avoid losing his job? Because he wins. And because the Tennessee brass appears to appreciate those wins very much. We know this because they've essentially said so. As the Knoxville Sentinel-News reported yesterday:

Hamilton said it’s UT intention to keep men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl on staff even if the NCAA imposes a one-year suspension. Hamilton said when the Vols received their letter of inquiry on Sept. 10 that he expected Pearl to be charged with unethical conduct.

“It’s our intention to keep him,’’ Hamilton said on Feb. 16. “Unless there’s something [severe violation] out there we’re unaware of.’’

Pearl has also received a very public statement of support from the man in charge, which in this case is Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. When Pearl was suspended by SEC commissioner Mike Slive for this season's first eight conference games, Cheek supported Pearl as such:

Chancellor Jimmy Cheek echoed his previous message of support for Pearl, indicating that the SEC's punishment in no way affects the coach's job security.

"Bruce is our coach, and he's going to be our coach for many years," Cheek said in the press conference. "We're going to get through this adversity."

Cheek neither confirmed nor deviated from that stance today, which means the following: Tennessee's athletic director supports Pearl. Tennessee's chancellor supports Pearl. We can use the present tense there, because both of them supported Pearl in the fall when both knew all about the charges currently listed in today's notice of allegations. There is nothing new or unexpected in the report, so why would either change their positions now?

This could change in the future. Perhaps the NCAA could rule so harshly against Pearl that Tennessee is practically forced to fire him (and Hamilton along with him). But the school seems to have little interest in cutting ties with Pearl. Pearl is still wildy popular in the state of Tennessee. No one really seems to want him out. Certainly not the fans.

Both of these points are related; neither of them are all that hard to figure out. Pearl wins. He wins a lot. He wins in a manner that Tennessee has never experienced before, at least not in men's hoops. He has turned a long-dormant sideshow program into one of the nation's most perennially competitive outfits. In 2007-08, he led the school to its first-ever No. 1 overall ranking. In his five full seasons at the school, Pearl has led Tennessee to five NCAA tournament appearances, which is as many as the previous 22 years of UT coaches combined. He’s also taken the Vols to three Sweet 16 berths, one more than Tennessee had achieved in its history before Pearl arrived. Last season’s Elite Eight appearance? A first for the school.

So Tennessee isn't exactly ready to let go of Pearl. Not just yet. There will be more to this story, of course, and the NCAA could come down on Pearl -- and Hamilton, for that matter -- with the sort of punishment that makes his firing almost mandatory. But unless Pearl suddenly stops being the most successful Vols coach of the modern era, Tennessee appears ready to go to war on his behalf.

Last night, as Pearl's Volunteers essentially played themselves into yet another NCAA tournament berth with a huge win at Vanderbilt, Pearl finished his postgame sideline interview and bounded to the locker room, high-fiving orange-clad Tennessee fans along the way. The symbolism wasn't hard to spot: The Vols still love their winner.

So unless something changes, Pearl seems likely to survive this mess.

Somehow.