Mark Story: Arrogant Pearl headed for a fall

Expect NCAA to get tough with Tennessee coach

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 27, 2011 

APTOPIX Tennessee Vanderbilt Basketball

Bruce Pearl reveled in an upset of Vanderbilt the night before the NCAA delivered its notice of allegations against his program.

MARK HUMPHREY — ASSOCIATED PRESS

There are elements of both Shakespearean tragedy and high irony in the mess that Bruce Pearl has made of his career.

As an Iowa assistant in the late 1980s, Pearl lost a heated recruiting battle for big man Deon Thomas to Illinois. Subsequent to the player's choice, Pearl recorded a telephone conversation with Thomas in which the prospect seemed to claim that Illinois had offered him both cash and an SUV.

Pearl turned over the recording to the NCAA.

For being a whistle blower, Pearl was seemingly blacklisted from Division I coaching. He wound up in Division II, compiling a massively successful run as head coach at Southern Indiana.

Yet it was not until 2001, some 12 years after he called foul on Illinois, that he was able to get a Division I head coaching job — and that came at that most glamorous college hoops venue, Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Now, of course, the very successful Tennessee coach is in the news for the opposite reason. Last week, the NCAA delivered its long-awaited "notice of allegations" to UT after an investigation of both the Volunteers' football and men's hoops programs.

Once the NCAA informant, Pearl now stands accused of multiple rules violations and "acting contrary to the principles of ethical conduct."

Yet — and here's the irony — the guy who once couldn't get a Division I coaching job for turning in alleged rules breakers still has his position, for now, even after being accused of breaking NCAA rules and lying to investigators about it.

The tragic element is that a coach who had to schlep around the bus leagues of college sports for so long after the Thomas affair only to finally get a shot at the big time — and thrive once there — has put himself in this position.

It's easy to understand why Tennessee is reluctant to part with Pearl.

Overshadowed by both Big Orange football and Lady Vols hoops, the UT men's basketball program had seemed dead in the water for years. Into this lagging operation, Pearl was a one-man injection of Red Bull.

He brought winning, an up-tempo style of play, winning, a big personality, winning, a sense of fun, winning, public relations genius, winning, winning and winning.

Just last spring, the Volunteers were one victory away from UT's first-ever men's Final Four trip.

Adrift with basketball coaching mediocrities for decades, Tennessee certainly understood how fortunate it was to finally find a Pearl.

Still, the school should cut him loose once the current season ends. Even if it doesn't, it's hard to see how the coach can survive.

From the time Pearl admitted to fibbing to NCAA investigators after being confronted with a picture of an under-class high school recruit taken at a cookout at the coach's home (an NCAA no-no), the college sports governing body has been all but obligated to drop the hammer on the UT coach.

Remember, the NCAA ended the career of Oklahoma State football star Dez Bryant because it believed he had lied to it about his relationship with an agent.

If one is going to punish so severely the students in college sports for dishonesty, the penalty given "responsible" adults for doing the same thing should be even more grave.

The NCAA can't fire Pearl. But it can put penalties on a coach and a program so severe that it removes any realistic chance they have to succeed. My guess is that's what UT and Pearl have ahead if they try to tough this out.

If professional ethics mattered at all at the highest levels of college basketball (and, most of the time, they don't) what should take Pearl across the "firing line" was a new allegation of cheating contained in last week's NCAA letter of notice.

Four days after his tearful September news conference in which Pearl admitted having lied about the cookout at his home, he allegedly committed an illegal personal contact with a recruit.

Think about that: Pearl couldn't make it four full days playing by the rules.

This shows A.) stupidity; B.) arrogance; C.) addiction to cheating; D.) possession by the spirit of Kelvin Sampson; E.) all of the above.

It's hard not to shake one's head and feel sad over the arc of Pearl's career.

Blacklisted for turning in alleged cheaters.

Years working in the college basketball wilderness.

At long last given a chance at the highest level of his profession.

Succeeding in a big way.

And at his career high point, accused of cheating — and lying about it.

In a way Shakespeare would recognize, Bruce Pearl has set himself up for a tragic fall.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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