Commentary

When termination meets toleration

Latest Pearl revelation might be most troubling of all ... but don't tell that to Tennessee

Originally Published: October 22, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

That universities go to the mattress to defend their head coaches is hardly a surprise.

Jim Calhoun went before the Committee on Infractions last week with the full support of his university. Butch Davis remains employed at North Carolina.

But the fact an athletic director penned a rather eye-popping Notice of Termination of Employment Agreement that isn't in fact terminal, may have raised the bar for bewildering behavior by a university athletic department.

The University of Tennessee, still applying balm from the scorched earth left in the wake of Lane Kiffin, has stood steadfastly behind its head men's basketball coach, Bruce Pearl.

On Sept. 10, the school held a news conference, where a tearful Pearl admitted he lied to NCAA investigators, and publicly castigated him by docking his pay.

Yet just a day earlier, athletic director Mike Hamilton had sent a letter to Pearl, severing his contract and detailing allegations that reveal Pearl was guilty of a whole lot more than just temporarily forgetting the truth.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Michael PatrickBruce Pearl held a tearful news conference on Sept. 10. Just a day earlier, his contract had been terminated by the university.

Somehow none of it -- not the end of the contract, not the details of Pearl's lies -- came up during the news conference.

Apparently Pearl isn't the only one with convenient amnesia.

Now, thanks to a television station in Knoxville getting hold of the document, it's there for everyone to read. Not only does Pearl look bad, but so does the university.

At the now-infamous barbecue where Pearl served himself up on a skewer to the NCAA, Pearl not only admitted to the recruits and families happily noshing their grub in his lovely backyard that he knew he was breaking an NCAA rule.

He told the people in attendance that they were, too.

But not to worry. He didn't plan on telling anyone and would appreciate it if they'd do the same.

"You also told the unofficial visitors and their families that you were not going to tell anyone about the NCAA rules violation and you asked that they not tell anyone either," Hamilton wrote in the Sept. 9 letter to Pearl.

This summer, 20 anonymous coaches talked to me about all sorts of things, including cheating. Rules, they told me, are broken all the time but usually unintentionally -- a coach says hello to a recruit at a summer event, violating the so-called bump rule, for example.

Not Bruce Pearl.

Pearl, a man once portrayed as a victim of shunning for turning in Illinois, defiantly thumbed his nose at the rulebook.

Scratch that.

He flaunted his defiance, with a wink-wink, nod-nod over burgers and dogs that this was just our little secret.

As reprehensible as that is, what's worse is that he put the eligibility of each of those athletes in jeopardy.

The NCAA rulebook is pretty clear: On page 189, 14.1.1 reads, "an institution shall not enter a student-athlete (as an individual or a member of a team) in any intercollegiate competition if it is acknowledged by the institution or established through the Association's enforcement procedures that the institution or representative(s) of its athletics interests violated the Association's legislation in the recruiting of the student-athlete."

In other words, by hosting his hush-hush food fest, Pearl not only put himself in the line of fire; he put the recruits there right alongside him.

Consequently, Jordan McRae, enrolled at Tennessee as one of the team's top freshman recruits, is currently caught in the NCAA eligibility muck and mire. He's practicing, but not yet cleared to play, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Because Aaron Craft (Ohio State) and Josh Selby (Kansas) opted to play elsewhere, they weren't affected.

And oh by the way, Pearl knew that, too.

Coaches know the rulebooks and the implications in violating it way better than 16-year-old kids and their families.

But when, two years later, the NCAA began asking questions, Pearl picked up the phone to call one of the fathers involved. Not to apologize for putting his son in such a crummy spot, but to "remind" him that Pearl told them they were committing an NCAA violation in 2008 and that the family had a choice to attend the barbecue.

He wanted to be sure the father's story matched his own.

Of course, as we all know, Pearl then went on to deny the barbecue ever happened when the NCAA asked, failing to not only recognize his own house in a photograph, but also identify Jana Shay, the wife of Jason Shay.

Jason has only been on Pearl's staff for 10 years, so that makes perfect sense.

The most recent poster child for NCAA tomfoolery is Kelvin Sampson, a coach so foolish and arrogant (or foolishly arrogant) that he broke a rule once at Oklahoma and, given a second chance at Indiana, broke the exact same rule there.

A lot was made at the time that "all Sampson did" was make a bunch of extra phone calls. The NCAA disagreed. They slammed Indiana and Sampson, hitting the coach with a five-year show-cause order that basically ended his collegiate coaching career.

Comparatively, Pearl has done a lot worse.

He's taken Sampson's excessive calls -- the Tennessee staff has been accused of making 96 extra calls, including 34 by Pearl himself -- and raised them two years' worth of deceit.

"… Chancellor [Jimmy] Cheek and I have determined that you engaged in gross misconduct, including dishonesty and other acts involving intolerable behavior," Hamilton wrote in the termination letter.

Well maybe intolerable, like termination, is a poor choice of words.

Clearly, Tennessee can still tolerate Pearl.

He's still coaching there, isn't he?

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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