KNOXVILLE — Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl has been suspended for the Volunteers' first eight Southeastern Conference games as punishment from league commissioner Mike Slive for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators.
"I have been a very public advocate for playing by the rules," Pearl said Friday. "When you don't play by the rules, these are the things that can happen. So while these penalties that we've self-imposed and now the commissioner's imposing are unprecedentedly strong, it sets a very high standard and a high standard that I agreed to."
Tennessee associate head coach Tony Jones will replace Pearl during those eight games with help from assistants Jason Shay and Steve Forbes.
Pearl's suspension does not include either of Tennessee's games against Kentucky, which take place Feb. 8 in Lexington and March 6 at Tennessee.
Slive, who was given authority to issue suspensions during the SEC's spring meetings, sent a letter Thursday informing Pearl he cannot participate in SEC games between Jan. 8 and Feb. 5 and any related activity or practice on those game days.
The commissioner said he considered suspending Pearl for the entire slate of SEC games and punishing Pearl's assistants, who have also been accused of NCAA violations, but took into account Pearl's admission of misleading the NCAA and the punishment Tennessee officials had already imposed on him.
"In the analysis I determined there may well have been enough for the entire conference season, but the fact that he owned up to what he had done, owned up to the underlying violations, I felt half of the conference season was an appropriate matter," Slive said.
It's the first time Slive has suspended a coach since SEC athletic directors, presidents and chancellors confirmed his authority to do so.
"With the authority granted to the commissioner at the meetings in May, I think the SEC was trying to take a stand that we were trying to attack these issues aggressively," Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said. "I would think there are coaches in America today that are probably sitting up straight in their chairs and thinking about the implications."
The NCAA is expected to present Tennessee with allegations stemming from its investigation in December and could decide to impose additional penalties on Pearl and Tennessee. The ongoing investigation also has looked at the Vols' football and baseball teams.
Pearl acknowledged in September that he misled investigators about photos taken of him and recruit Aaron Craft, when Pearl improperly hosted the prospect at his home in 2008. Tennessee also revealed Pearl and his staff made excessive calls to recruits.
Hamilton docked Pearl's pay by $1.5 million over five years and banned him from participating in off-campus recruiting for a year.
"We presented (Slive) with a letter saying that we thought we took substantial action and our action was appropriate, and we asked that he not take additional action," said Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus. "He saw it differently than that. We're disappointed that he decided to do that, but we understand he has the authority and we're moving forward with those penalties."
The suspension will keep Pearl from Tennessee's home games against Florida, Vanderbilt, LSU and Alabama and trips to Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Auburn. He will not be excluded from the Vols' trip to Connecticut on Jan. 22 and may lead practices on non-game days during that period.
Pearl's first SEC game will be Feb. 8 at Kentucky. The Vols currently are ranked 24th, have won their first three games and will play in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals against Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday in New York City.
"We're going to be without the head coach for eight games," Pearl said. "My assistant coaches are all going to step up, and the players are all going to have to step up."