Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tennessee Should Not Fire Bruce Pearl Now

I know this is Vanderbilt sport's blog, so this piece might appear to be coming out of left field. To a certain extent it is. As a Commodore fan, I think I'm firmly on the record as anti-Volunteer when it comes to all things having to do with sports. Still, as a resident of the State of Tennessee and a close follower of college sports, I have some thoughts on what appears to be transpiring in Knoxville and would be remiss if I didn't offer a counter-point to those calling from Bruce Pearl's ouster.

Let me begin by saying I think Bruce Pearl should have been fired months ago. As soon as they found out Bruce Pearl lied to the NCAA about recruiting violations, he should have been terminated. Even if Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton wanted to stand behind Pearl, he had no choice but to fire the man when it was revealed that less than a week after offering a weepy (and seemingly genuine, at the time) apology for his behavior, he committed another violation for impermissible contact with a recruit. Alas, Hamilton didn't do so either time. Now, worried about his own job, the embattled Tennessee Athletic Director is trying to save his own job by throwing Coach Pearl under the proverbial bus, when he fails to say whether or not Pearl will be the Volunteer coach next season. Hamilton's stewardship of the UT Athletic Department has, in recent years, been laughable. Any sportswriter who criticizes Vanderbilt for not having someone donning the "AD" title, obviously isn't paying attention to the mismanagement of Mike Hamilton (or simply refuses to criticize the University of Tennessee). I'll take David Williams and his staff any day of the week, thank you very much. But I digress...

The point I am trying to make is firing Bruce Pearl at this point makes absolutely no sense as far as I can tell. After "standing by their man," back in October, Hamilton and Tennessee made their bed. Everyone knew Pearl violated NCAA rules; transgressions, I might add, that he then took to a whole new level when he lied to NCAA investigators. The damage has been done. If Tennessee and Hamilton had taken decisive action either then, or when the NCAA issued its Notice of Allegations, they might be able to claim they were serious about abiding by NCAA rules, and holding their employees responsible for their conduct. Instead, Hamilton did nothing.

Firing Pearl now makes no sense. First, it confirms that Tennessee cares more about winning than abiding by NCAA rules. And, while that might be true, relieving Pearl would just rub that fact in the face of an organization that thrives on hypocrisy and television revenue. Bruce Pearl being fired now has nothing to do with him running afoul of NCAA regulators; it has to do with his team finishing 5th in the SEC East and losing 14 games despite being a pre-season Top 20 team and Mike Hamilton trying to keep his job. Second, say what you want about Bruce Pearl, but he is a very good coach. With the exception of this year where his team was obviously distracted by their coaches job status, this teams are typically focused, aggressive, and talented. Which brings me to my third point: who is Tennessee going to hire that's a better coach than Pearl? This is not to say that Tennessee isn't a attractive job, because I think it actually could be to many coaches. The problem that Hamilton has created through his inaction, is the NCAA now has no choice but to throw the book at them (whether the NCAA knows that remains to be seen) based on Pearl and Hamilton's conduct. What restrictions Tennessee's Men's Basketball team will face is the great unknown in any search for Pearl's replacement. Tennessee Basketball is not USC Football, and any coach worth his salt isn't going to walk into a situation where he has absolutely no idea what restrictions will be placed on him and the program by the NCAA. (Just as an aside, for those scoring at home, Hamilton also hired Lane Kiffin, who left UT after just 1 mediocre season to return to USC to be on probation for 2 years where). Mike Hamilton, assuming he keeps his job, may find himself entirely without a coach if he fires Pearl and is made an example of by the NCAA.

Make no mistake about it, Mike Hamilton is trying to save his job by offering Pearl as a sacrificial lamb to the NCAA compliance gods. But it's too little, too late. Tennessee would make a bad situation that much worse by giving Pearl the boot. In doing so, they will be trading a quality coach (if also a morally bankrupt one) for a potentially perilous search process that is anything by guaranteed to get you someone better; you will still get hammered by the NCAA, whether or not Pearl is patrolling the sidelines; and you'll have done so to prove a point that, if you were serious about proving, you would have proven 5 months (and 14 or 15 losses) ago. As is his want these days, Mike Hamilton missed an opportunity to do the right thing for Tennessee athletics a long time ago by allowing Pearl to remain the Volunteers' coach. Hamilton's instinct to fire Pearl now is one purely motivated by self-preservation, and surprise, surprise, that instinct is wrong too. Perhaps Hamilton could learn something from George Constanza when he got the job with the New York Yankees.

For a great take on what Tennessee should do if they fire Pearl, check out Henry Nichols' piece on Sports Media America, A Pearl for a Byrd in Hand

For my part, I'm done analyzing Tennessee sports objectively. We now return to our Volunteer-hating outlook, already in progress.


Drew said...

Okay, I get it. It's about the AD saving his job. You made your POV clear. BUT. On the eve of Vandy's tourney game, a Vol themed post? It killed my buzz a little. And on the eve of St. Patty's day from an O'Shea? Poo. I know we're running out of material, but I'd rather have clicked on my VSL favorites tab and seen anything else. Even a commentary on Vandy's plan for adjusting to the Denver altitude. When did the team arrive? Did they get there a day early to start adjusting to the thin air? Or even a roll call of where everyone will be watching the game, who with and what they will be drinking? But a Vol post? It's your blog, and you do a f'ing fantastic job and I'm just a daily reader, but...holy Guinness, man.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Pearl should go and have felt that way for months. If this were a student athlete, there would be a 3-5 game suspension and much scorn. The fact that this has drug on this long shows a lack of consistency by the ncaa in TIMELY enforcement of its rules. Tenn AD knows that his career is set back several years if / when he is terminated. What credible "academic" institution in today's ncaa enforcement climate wants to hire Pearl or Hamilton after this incident ? I have always agreed with Vandy's manner of running its athletic department. Nobody complains about the way Vandy and DW runs the athletic department relative to baseball or basketball. When the football team starts to win, there will not be as many complaints and calls for an "Athletic Director". It's important to run a clean program. Just ask reasonable Tenn fans; not the ones who drink the Tenn koolaid. Go Dores !

Andrew Smith said...

You don't even mention the worst part of Hamilton's timing: it comes a day before the Vol's play in the tournament. Is the guy trying to make his own school lose?

I agree entirely with those who think Pearl should have been fired immediately, but once that window passed, the upside of firing Pearl for either the AD or the chancellor went to zero. They cannot reclaim any moral high ground, so they might as well stick to their guns and give Pearl their full support. He is a GREAT coach who has taken Tennessee from a basketball nothing to a powerhouse program, albeit in a greasy way.

So do I think it's right from UT's perspective to keep Pearl? No. I think huge action is needed, but it needs to come from a part of the university that isn't yet tainted by giving Pearl a pass -- the school's trustees. They need to fire not only Pearl but also Hamilton and Jimmy Cheek, the school chancellor.

Why? Because there's simply no way that the decision to keep Pearl was made by Hamilton. At a school that values athletics the way UT does, that decision was made by Cheek, and no credible university can be led by a guy who thinks it's okay for a great coach to cheat and then lie about cheating.

Of the three -- Pearl, Hamilton and Cheek -- Hamilton is probably the least culpable. He doesn't seem to have cheated or lied about cheating and I don't think he made the decision to keep the cheater. The only thing he's actually guilty of is failing to resign, the way an honorable person would when the chancellor told him to keep Pearl.

That said, he needs to go -- if not for corruption, then for extreme weaseliness and general incompetence.

Anonymous said...

Typical Vanderbilt baloney. They are and always will be LOSERS in athletics.