UK Men's Basketball

Penitent Pearl makes return in Rupp

Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl will return from suspension to lead the Vols into Rupp Arena tonight.
Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl will return from suspension to lead the Vols into Rupp Arena tonight.

On Monday, University of Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl made light of his return from an eight-game suspension in Rupp Arena against Kentucky.

"I think he originally wanted to do 10," Pearl said of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive's unprecedented punishment. "But when he looked at the schedule, he saw that I have to go to Rupp and the O-Dome. He decided to settle for just eight and make me go to those two places."

Gallows humor, it's called.

No one knows better than the affable Pearl that his return to the sideline at Kentucky on Tuesday and at Florida on Saturday is no joking matter.

Amid reports that Pearl lied to NCAA investigators and asked others to also provide misleading information, Slive ordered him to not associate with his players nor assistant coaches on game days until one hour after the final buzzer through the first half of the conference schedule.

No pre-game team meals. No pre-game pep talks. No halftime adjustments. No post-game celebration. No phone calls, no text messages. Nothing.

Pearl accompanied the team to Arkansas for its first SEC game on Jan. 8. He stayed at the hotel and watched the game with his wife and an associate UT athletic director.

Bob Kessling, the radio play-by-play announcer for UT, noted how the team and traveling party did not see Pearl that day until they boarded the plane for the flight home after a 68-65 loss.

"He looked like a lonely, isolated figure," Kessling recalled. "That was different for everybody."

Of course, Pearl's gregarious personality had revitalized a moribund Tennessee basketball program. Attendance soared. Cash registers rang a merry tune. Pearl won prizes for salesmanship, helped raise $1 million for a UT cancer research project and participated in a children's hospital telethon.

Oh yeah, he also guided Tennessee to five straight NCAA Tournaments, including a best-ever advancement to a region final last spring.

Then it all came crashing down when Pearl lied to NCAA investigators about being with prospects at his home on Sept. 20, 2008.

It was a violation for the player, then a high school junior, to be off-campus with Pearl even though the player had committed to Tennessee.

The Knoxville News Sentinel subsequently reported that two other prospects who had already committed to UT were also at Pearl's home.

Although Pearl later confessed his lies to NCAA investigators, Tennessee announced a list of self-imposed sanctions that included a $1.5 million reduction in salary over a five-year period and a one-year ban on off-campus recruiting.

Slive then ordered the eight-game suspension, a penalty he said he reduced from a full SEC season because Pearl admitted he lied.

"It's as hard as you can possibly imagine," Pearl said of the suspension. "It's harder than I ever dreamed it would be. ...

"Obviously, I let the guys down."

One of those guys is senior forward Steven Pearl, the coach's son who plays like a coach's son in the role known as "glue-guy."

"Yeah, it's been tough," Steven Pearl said of watching his father's failings become a public spectacle. "I've got thick skin. He doesn't really show it when he's upset about something. He doesn't let anything get to him. He's rubbed that off on me."

Pearl, who once reported a recruiting violation by an opposing assistant coach when he worked on Tom Davis's staff at Iowa, did not have all his colleagues rally to his side. One coach who did reach out was Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech."I wanted to make sure he understood he wasn't on an island," Greenberg said. "We all make mistakes. We're all human. Heck, there's no coach in the country without flaws. And he paid a dear price."

Pearl has been contrite. He got teary-eyed in talking with CBS's Seth Davis in a halftime interview. He has not lashed out. He has not qualified his apology.

"At his core, I think Bruce is a good person," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said when asked about the eight-game suspension. "He's a person. He's a human being. I'm more concerned with him as a person. Forget the coaching. You know what, this coaching is going to end sooner or later. He has a life to lead."

Although he joked about returning to Rupp Arena as Slive's way of twisting the knife, Pearl might welcome the chance to resume SEC coaching at Kentucky, the league's flagship franchise. It seems to fit his outgoing personality to return in Rupp Arena in a game televised nationally by ESPN.

"I think he's more excited than anything to come back in the most exciting game of the year," Steven Pearl said of his father's return. "It's an awesome challenge and an awesome opportunity. We always love to play in this game."

The "we" includes the Tennessee coach.

" 'Favorite' is a good word," Pearl said of the Rupp Arena setting. "I'd say, yeah, because of the history and tradition. You walk in there and it's very special. There's an atmosphere that's very festive."

No one doubts that Pearl, who said he would wear his garish orange sportcoat Tuesday night, has brought a festive atmosphere to Tennessee basketball. That might be the reason UT's chancellor and athletic director pledged their support.

"He's creating a brand for Tennessee basketball when there really wasn't much of a brand," Greenberg said of his friend's work. "They do College GameDay at Tennessee (on Jan. 15, with Pearl conspicuous by his absence). Did they do that before he got there?"

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