Tennessee lost to Florida, 67-58, on Tuesday night. There’s no shame in that loss, but it crystallized what’s likely to be the third straight season of NCAA futility for Cuonzo Martin’s Vols.
Cuonzo’s a nice guy, no one dislikes him, I wish he’d won, but you can’t spell Martin without NIT. It’s time to acknowledge that Cuonzo isn’t getting the job done.
Namely, this is three straight seasons when Tennessee had NCAA-caliber talent and the SEC was awful, and three straight seasons of underwhelming performances ending in the NIT. Next year’s team will be worse, so this isn’t about needing more time for everything to jell. This year represents the peak of Martin’s Vols. And this year is the worst yet; the Vols are 6-5 in a god-awful SEC with the best win of the league season being on the road at LSU, a team that doesn’t crack the top 50 of the RPI.
What’s more, Martin’s teams play a boring, plodding style that sucks the energy out of Thompson-Boling Arena and doesn’t fit the talent of the team. Look at the body language of this year’s Vols team. Does this seem like a group that believes in its coaching staff? Contrast that with the past.
Tennessee needs to rehire Bruce Pearl.
Remember when Pearl would parade his team in through the stands, put on a show, work the sideline like a magician in his orange jacket? Pearl made basketball fun in Knoxville.
And he won.
In his six seasons at Tennessee, Pearl took the Vols to No. 1 in the country, went to six straight NCAA tournaments, advancing to three Sweet 16s, and an Elite 8. He came within a free throw of the Final Four, which would have been a first for the school. Oh, and did I mention that he sold tons of tickets, was more beloved than any coach in the past 30 years at Tennessee, and united the Vols’ fan base like no coach I’ve seen?
As if that weren’t enough, he still lives in Knoxville, where he’s been serving out his three-year, NCAA penalty.
Stop right now with your "PEARL CHEATED" emails and tweets.
I’m past caring.
Everyone cheats in the NCAA. Every. Single. Team. If you want to be mad at Pearl, be mad at him for lying to the NCAA about something so stupid, whether he had juniors over to his house — which is now permissible under the rules — when it would have been a secondary violation if he’d just come clean.
In fact, if you want to be mad, how about being mad at Tennessee’s lawyers for not telling Pearl that the NCAA had a picture of him with Aaron Craft before he went into that NCAA meeting and was blindsided by the photo. Sure, Pearl lied. But coaches lie every day to the NCAA. The difference was Pearl lied and was caught. He then admitted to lying — an admission, by the way, that gained him absolutely no favorable treatment from the NCAA.
I still wonder what would have happened if Pearl had lawyered up and denied he did anything improper. I think his punishment would have been less, especially if he’d really fought it aggressively, Miami Hurricane style. By the time the NCAA got around to ruling on him, the organization would have been significantly weakened. If Tennessee had responded to the NCAA like Miami did — fighting tooth and nail for their guys — Pearl would probably still be the coach in Knoxville.
Hell, if Tennessee had just shown cause — as Central Florida did with Donnie Jones and Louisville did with Clint Hurtt, two men who did far worse than Pearl — the university could have kept him in charge these past three years anyway. We used to think a show cause was a death sentence; schools just thumb their nose at the most stringent penalty the NCAA has to offer.
And how about Bobby Petrino? He’s back at Louisville after leaving for the NFL, leaving the NFL midseason, and getting fired for having an affair with an employee and lying about it at Arkansas. Louisville hired him back 20 months after he’d been fired by Arkansas. The distance between infamy and fame has never been so thin.
Instead, the story’s familiar now, Pearl was suspended for half the season by the SEC, then fired by Tennessee, after which time he received a three-year show cause. For the past three years, Pearl hasn’t coached, as the NCAA has tumbled down around him. If Pearl’s not the most overpenalized coach in college history, I’d like to see one that’s more penalized than him.
Hell, Missouri’s Frank Haith helmed a program that bought players and lied to the NCAA investigators about it. His penalty? Five games. Five freaking games! And no one even blinked. Pearl got three-and-a-quarter years for lying about a damn barbecue — a barbecue, by the way, at which he didn’t sign two of the three recruits that were there. He didn’t gain a competitive benefit from his "cheating."
Even if you really, strongly feel that Pearl should be penalized, he’s done his time. That’s why every school in the SEC not named Kentucky or Florida wishes that Pearl was its coach right now. Plus, the SEC needs Bruce Pearl back. Badly. SEC basketball is horrendous. Even if you hated him, at least Pearl was entertaining. With the SEC Network coming in August, who is going to be demanding the network once football season is over? Pearl made Tennessee a top-15 program.
So why isn’t Pearl to Tennessee an orange-coated slam dunk?
Some will tell you that Tennessee’s administration won’t rehire Bruce Pearl.
I say, so what? Make it rehire Bruce Pearl. Those nimrods work for you. It’s an awful lot harder to find a basketball coach who goes to the NCAA tournament every year than it is to find a chancellor or an AD to work in Knoxville. If they won’t hire Pearl, then in my opinion, they should be fired.
Put it this way: Do you trust Tennessee’s administration to hire a better coach than Bruce Pearl? Tennessee’s coaching hire list over the past 25 years is like a bad snuff film — Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Jerry Green, Buzz Peterson and now Cuonzo Martin. (Insert next failure here). Or hire one of the best coaches in college basketball who already lives in your town and is coming off six straight NCAA tourney trips. It’s an absolute no-brainer.
It’s time — past time, even — for Bruce Pearl to be back on the sideline at Tennessee.