Friday, February 4, 2011

The Bruce is Loose?

Do you remember life before Bruce Pearl? The long winter months which were simply the waiting period until spring football? Who could forget the the legendary figures of UT athletics like Wade Houston (career record 65-90), Kevin O’Neil (record 36-47), or the great Buzz Peterson (the “great” is only for having a 61-59 record)? Remember when going to a basketball game at Thompson Boling operated on a “choose your own seat” system?

During the time between Ray Mears and Pearl, Volunteer basketball was laughable. While the football program was grooming the best quarterback since Joe Montana and winning conference and national titles, Pat Summit’s teams were busy making use of Thompson Boling (and filling the rafters with banners). Men’s track and field teams were winning national titles as well, with their success in the conference rivaled only by Arkansas and LSU. No one, including high school recruits, was interested in men’s basketball in Knoxville.

Then came Bruce, and the change was instant. From the moment he began at UT, he knew what needed to happen to breathe life into the program. He campaigned with students on campus to come to games. He sent players to Knoxville events to ask locals to come support the team. He painted his chest orange and jumped in with the student section at a Lady Vols game. During an event to kick off the season, he donned a sumo wrestling outfit and challenged a student to put him on the ground (Pearl dominated the match by the way). His Sunsphere sized personality was working its way across East Tennessee.

Pearl made us all believe he had the Midas touch. Chris Lofton, Jujuan Smith, and Dane Bradshaw began showing up on Sportscenter. Dominant teams like Florida and Kansas, who were winning national championships, began having trouble handling the “Rocky Top Rowdies”. Local rock bands wrote songs in his honor (“The Bruce is Loose” As UT football began declining into the Lane Kiffin debacle, men’s basketball games were the hottest ticket in town. March was no longer the month before the Orange and White game. Tennesseans found themselves glued to J.P. Prince blocking a last second shot from the 2010 national player of the year (Evan Turner) and coming a half court prayer from our first trip to the Final Four. Pearl turned what had been a 25 year mess into a national contender.

Then he lied to the NCAA.

Over what would later be revealed as a secondary violation, Pearl lied about improperly hosting a recruit at his home. The punishment (eight game conference suspension, salary reduction, one year ban from off campus recruiting) is unprecedented in the SEC, but had (and still has) the potential to be much worse. SEC commissioner Mike Slive told ESPN in November he considered suspending him for the entire conference season, saved only by Pearl’s honesty and show of remorse.

All this while the NCAA, as if to watch Mike Hamilton squirm, sits... and waits.

Violations among college coaches is nothing new, fueled by the NCAA’s endless nit-picky rules and the pressure high profiled programs feel to win. Pearl has simply joined the ranks of those like Jerry Tarkanian and Dana Kirk who were caught. However, just a glimpse into John Calipari’s history will lead you straight into the irony abyss. Calipari has left a trail of destruction, bouncing from one coaching position to another while his salary continues to grow. His resume is free of NCAA violations, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of dirt. He’s proven to be a coaching mercenary, preying on desperate athletic directors willing to sell out their integrity to win.

Bruce Pearl is no saint, but he has proven to have some sort of moral compass. Rejecting the Calipari route by not jumping ship to another well paying job, he choose instead to work without a contract at UT. Try finding another coach willing to do that.

If the NCAA is concerned with the character of it’s coaches, it seems to me Pearl exemplifies the humility and integrity that comes from a man who has realized his faults. He did what other coaches who have scandal following them never do; admit their actions. With the threat of further suspension looming over him, Pearl continues to accept responsibility without argument or complaint. It seems ludicrous to continue this barrage of punishments while Calipari and other weasels continue to make a mockery of the profession.

This argument, though, will probably fall on deaf ears and leave anxious Tennesseans to wonder if the unthinkable is possible. What if, in a show of power and toughness, the NCAA drops the hammer on Pearl and UT basketball? Would we be outraged? Would we cry, “Foul!” and demand the ruling overturned?

Or would it just go back to being the few months between football season and the Orange and White game?

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