Helpless Pearl

No human emotion is more debilitating than helplessness.

Think about it. A sick child, a friend that is out of work, a family member struggling with addiction, and there is nothing you can do about it. The sense of helplessness can become so overwhelming that you get physically ill.

Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl hasn’t gotten sick yet, but he has experienced all the frustration that comes with watching bad things happen while being powerless to affect any change.

Pearl is two games into his eight-game SEC suspension for misleading NCAA investigators. The Vols are 0-2 without him, 10-6 overall, and in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in Pearl’s six-year tenure. They dropped three straight to Oakland, Charlotte, and USC with Pearl going through his normal histrionics on the bench. Since he began his suspension, they’ve lost to Arkansas 68-65, and lost a heartbreaker at home to Florida 81-75 in overtime.

On Saturday, the Vols will play in-state rival Vanderbilt at home, and then travel to Athens on Tuesday to take on Georgia. While Pearl will be doing everything in his power to prepare his team for those contests, he will be helpless to influence the outcome on game-day.

“It’s as hard as you can possibly imagine,” Pearl said of his feelings as he watched his team on television. “It’s harder than I ever dreamed it would be. When you prepare for an opponent, you are preparing your team and your staff, but you are also preparing yourself. You play the game over and over again (in your mind). But that aspect of it is gone.”

Unlike any other NCAA sport, basketball assumes the personality of its coaches. Florida moves the ball with NBA speed and efficiency because Billy Donovan is a fast-paced guy. Georgia moves the ball inside and relies on tough defense and transition baskets, because Mark Fox is more passionate about defense than any other aspect of the game.

With Pearl on the bench, the Vols are a fiery, up-tempo team. Without him, they haven’t shown much personality at all.

“You have to try to keep things are normal as possible,” Pearl said. “If kids see you acting differently, then they are going to worry about it.”

Things are far from normal in Knoxville. Pearl has won more than 20 games every year he has been with the Vols and has never had a losing SEC record. But this year’s distractions, which began in September when Pearl acknowledged making inappropriate recruiting contacts and then lying to NCAA investigators. In addition to missing eight games, the penalty from the school and the SEC includes $1.5 million in reduced salaries and bonuses, and no off-campus recruiting for Pearl.

“This is a severe penalty as are all of our penalties,” Pearl said. “The limitations that we’ve placed upon ourselves in terms of contacting prospects, they are all unprecedented, seriously harsh penalties. This one is tough. It’s personally tough and tough for our team. I’ve let our guys down, and I’m responsible for the fact that I’m not there.”

He is also responsible for the lack of focus his team has shown in recent weeks. Distraction is understandable when the man running drills in practice is not the man calling the plays on the bench. And with possible NCAA penalties still looming, those distractions aren’t going away anytime soon.

The only solace Pearl can take is the love he is getting from the Volunteer faithful. When the starting lineups were announced at the Florida game, fans cheered each name. But after assistant coaches Jason Shay and Steve Forbes were announced, the crowd responded with a spontaneous chant of:


“Bruce is revered in this community,” said Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. “They love him.” And then, with emphasis, Hamilton gave Pearl his best vote of confidence yet: “I love him,” he said.

Love is a strong emotion, one that can carry Tennessee fans through a few more losses. But love can sour. If the NCAA hammer comes down, the feelings about Pearl will certainly be tested.

Either way, there is nothing the coach can do about it. And that helplessness is the strongest emotion of all.