Pearl takes a hit
By Randy Moore
November 19, 2010
Tennessee's basketball program just got another slap in the face.
Head coach Bruce Pearl, the face of the program, has been slapped with an eight-game suspension by Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive. The punishment stems from recruiting improprieties, which also are being investigated by the NCAA.
The suspension will cover games Jan. 8 at Arkansas, Jan. 11 vs. Florida, Jan. 15 vs. Vanderbilt, Jan. 18 at Georgia, Jan. 26 vs. LSU, Jan. 29 at Ole Miss, Feb. 3 at Auburn and Feb. 5 vs. Alabama. The Vols' Jan. 22 game at Connecticut falls in the middle of the suspension period but is not included because it is not an SEC contest.
Obvious question No. 1: How will this affect the current season?
That depends on the resourcefulness of associate head coach Tony Jones, who will be the game-day manager in Pearl's absence. Jones is not as forceful a personality as his boss (who is?), but he recruited most of Tennessee's players and is well respected by them. He is in his 10th year assisting Pearl, dating to their days at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, so he knows his boss's offensive and defensive schemes inside-out.
The key for Jones will be his game-day coaching. He handles Tennessee's substitutions, so he may have to delegate that responsibility in order to focus on in-game strategy. Pearl excels with the X's and O's, so Jones has his work cut out for him in this regard. Pearl also excels at motivating, exhibiting an uncanny knack for wringing the maximum out of each Volunteer. Whether Jones has the fire to succeed in this area remains to be seen.
Obvious question No. 2: How will this affect recruiting?
Tennessee already signed two four-star guards for its 2011 class, Chris Jones of Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military Academy and Kevin Ware of Conyers, Ga. The Vols lose senior posts Brian Williams and John Fields at the conclusion of the current season, however, so they will need to add at least one big man during the spring signing period.
Athletics director Mike Hamilton already banned Pearl and assistant Steve Forbes from off-campus recruiting until Sept. 23, 2011. Jones is banned until June 23 and Jason Shay until Dec. 23 of this year. Those restrictions, plus the negative publicity surrounding the eight-game suspension, will make signing a quality "big" an imposing challenge.
Obvious question No. 3: How much will this affect Pearl's long-term future at Tennessee?
Not much. Hamilton already had one of his coaching hires (Lane Kiffin) blow up in his face. If Pearl leaves, Hamilton will be one step behind him. Hamilton surely understands this. That's why he and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek issued the following joint statement in response to Slive's suspension of Pearl:
"In September of 2010, we took strong and decisive action in response to the summer's preliminary NCAA findings.
"While disappointed in the severity of Commissioner Slive's additional punishment, we respect that he is acting on the authority that the league's athletic directors, presidents, and chancellors granted him earlier this year to address matters of this nature.
"As we move forward, we are hopeful the Tennessee family will now rally behind Coach Pearl, his staff and particularly our student-athletes as they focus on the 2010-11 season, and we advance toward bringing this matter to conclusion over the next several months."
Because he elevated Tennessee basketball from a national joke to a national contender in his first five years at the helm, Bruce Pearl isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Even so, the face of Vol hoops is sporting an unmistakable black eye these days.