Saturday, September 11, 2010

College Basketball: It's Only Cheating If You Get Caught

There was some sadistic joy in seeing Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl crying his eyes out in yesterday's press conference as the University brought harsh self-sanctions in an effort to mitigate any that may be imposed by the NCAA. Just five months or so ago Bruce Pearl was slamming Vanderbilt on national TV in a stand off with Skip Bayless on ESPN's First Take. His boisterous nature has won over the Tennessee faithful, who seemingly yearn for the "swagger" that the University of Miami had in the 1980s, but it hasn't endeared him in the hearts of Commodore fans, or any other fans for that matter.

Still, deep down, I do feel a little bad for Pearl. NCAA recruiting rules regarding contact limitations are somewhat ridiculous. No, he should not have lied to NCAA investigators about his involvement when the investigation officially began. That above anything earned the sanctions which are now imposed on Pearl. But Pearl is a coach at a university that cares about winning above all else, and he operates in a system where if you aren't bending the rules, you fall behind.

In the long run, your college basketball program is only as good as what's coming in two years down the road. You can tell how a program is trending based on the recruits they're drawing in. After the Commodores sweet 16 run our stock rose in recruiting, and in 2007, even after our early exit to Siena, we landed the best class Vanderbilt had in rankings era with Taylor, Tinsley, Tchiengang, and Lance. Then we landed our first five star in John Jenkins. Our performance last year, the disappointing exit aside, should have been apparent to any who were paying attention.

Recruiting is just as important, if not more so, as X's and O's. Without making accusations, the way Kentucky draws the recruits it does puts immense amount of pressure to keep up. Florida's program feeds heavily off the popularity of football and is still capable of bringing in high profile players. The SEC is getting better and more competitive by the day with every big name that signs with one of its member schools.

Which is why coaches, more than ever, are willing to bend the rules a tad, particularly when it means preventing your program from falling behind. The SEC is not exactly a spotless conference. Player arrests, recruiting violations, questionable benefits given to athletes, we've got it all, to at least the same extent as other conferences, if not more so.

Which is why it's naive to think that coaches aren't trying to find ways to bend the rules. Bruce Pearl is hardly the first person to make excessive phone calls outside of NCAA regulations. His guilt is lying to the investigators after suspicions were raised. In short, he was only guilty of cheating after he got caught and lied about it. But seriously, you're staring at Kentucky pulling in guys who were getting played in professional leagues over in Turkey. What do you EXPECT them to do?

The fact of the matter is that college basketball has become somewhat of a joke. A sport where people allow the ooo's and aaah's and willfully ignore the nastiness that goes into obtaining them. In a way, it's a microcosm for what's wrong with much of college athletics. People use tradition and school pride to justify it, but in the end it's all about money. The schools are businesses, and college sports is big business. They pay coaches millions of dollars to bring in top flight recruits so that they can win and get a slice of the pie, and if they don't, they get canned and some never make it back.

So even though we hate Bruce Pearl for his antics, don't make the mistake of using him as a scapegoat for a system that is incredibly wrong. There will be someone after him who will get nailed for the exact same thing. If the NCAA wants to stop it in full, then they need to seriously revise their requirements to put the emphasis back on student and away from athlete. Until then, don't expect the schools to act as though they are playing on an even playing field, because they're not.

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