Friday, March 18, 2011

THE BLACK PEARL

Bruce Pearl had Tennessee at hello. He was the ebullient, energetic,
and brilliant basketball coach who had just taken the University of
Wisconsin at Milwaukee, a commuter school,  to the Sweet 16 of
the 2005 NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, the Volunteers basketball program was in shambles.
The Buzz Peterson era, which quickly became the error, had UT
on the bottom of the SEC looking up. Attendance was down, as
was morale, and the folks in Knoxville don't tolerate losing.

Pearl, as his record validated, didn't lose very often. He was
the second-fastest coach to 300 wins and took a school that
nobody ever heard of, to a pair of NCAA appearances.
Tennessee had to have him.

So out went Peterson,  and in came a guy who generated a buzz
unlike anything ever seen in good old Rocky-Top. Inheriting a
team 14-18 without two of its leading scorers,  Pearl guided
the Vols to a 22-8 record, one of the best marks in school history.
The season was highlighted by wins over Kentucky in Rupp Arena,
and Florida, the eventual national champion. Pearl was named
SEC coach of the year, and the Vols were back quicker than
you can say Lane Kiffin.

Pearl's star was shining bright. He took Tennessee by storm,
and by surprise. He became the life of every volunteer party,
blessed with the charm, charisma, and chutzpa rarely seen
in Knoxville. Pearl wore that mind-numbing orange blazer
on the court, and not much away from it. He partied on the
lake with player's, and took pictures with co-eds in nothing
but his bathing trunks. (Google it)

Pearl once showed up at  a woman's basketball game half-naked,
wearing orange body paint, while chest-bumping in the student
section. P90x couldn't help that psyhique, but Pearl didn't care,
he was having the time of his life, and the Volunteers were
winning.

The Volunteers kept winning and Pearl kept getting more
popular. ESPN was always there for a soundbite, the
administration right behind them, with a contract extension.
In February of 2008, Tennessee beat in-state rival Memphis
to take over the number one ranking in the country. Pearl
became the first coach in the program's history to guide
the team to the top of the polls.

But as everyone knows, once you're number one, you
become a target. Every team wants to take you down.
Vanderbilt took the Vols down less than a week later,
and Tennessee lost their number one ranking.

Symbolically, it was the start of Pearl's descent at Tennessee.
He was still winning a lot of basketball games, but Pearl's
character took a Manny Pacquiao-like beating. There is often
a dark side to greatness, and in Pearl's case, it would be exposed.

In the fall of 2010, reports out of Knoxville said that Pearl, who
has a reputation for being a great recruiter, hosted a number of
junior recruits at his home, which is an NCAA violation.
There were even pictures of Pearl and the recruits, the reports
said, and an investigation was forthcoming.

When Pearl was asked about it by the NCAA, he denied it ever
happened. When the NCAA presented Pearl with a picture
of him with the recruits, he basically said, "Yeah, that's me,
but it's not my house." Which was an out-and-out lie.

The SEC took swift action, suspending Pearl for eight
conference games. Tennessee also came down hard on Pearl,
docking him 1.5 million dollars of salary over the next five
years. In February, the NCAA ruled that Pearl had provided
false and misleading information, and cited him for "unethical
behavior".

It wasn't the first time Pearl and unethical behavior appeared
together in the same sentence. When he was an assistant coach
at Iowa in the late '80's, Pearl secretly taped a conversation with
Deon Thomas, a recruit who had just chosen Illinois over Iowa.
Pearl asked Thomas if Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins had offer
him an SUV and cash, Thomas said that he did. Pearl turned over
the tape to the NCAA, which later exonerated Illinois of any
wrong doing.

Thomas publicly called Pearl "a rat". Dick Vitale of ESPN
called Pearl much worse and said his actions equaled "career
suicide," which as we know, didn't happen because Pearl
can really coach basketball and win.

But all the wins, national ranking, coach of the year
awards, body paint, and orange blazer, mean nothing
now. Once the NCAA outs you for "unethical behavior",
you become a dead man walking. Other schools will
use that in recruiting against Tennessee, just as they
will use Pearl's taping incident when he was at Iowa.

Mike Hamilton, athletic director at Tennessee, made
a startling, yet revealing comment just days before the NCAA
tournament. He said the "jury's still out" on whether
Pearl will stay at Tennessee, perhaps laying the groundwork
for his dismissal. After all, Hamilton basically said
the same thing about Phillip Fulmer before he canned him
as the school's football coach.

It's a shocking descent for Pearl, who took the Volunteer
program from the depths of the SEC to a nationally ranked
power in warp speed. He was the cat's meow in Knoxville
and the second most popular figure in the state behind
only Pat Summitt, the Vols legendary woman's basketball
coach.  But unless he wins the national championship, Pearl's
next loss, will be his last at Tennessee.

It's hard to believe that after saying hello to Pearl just
six years ago, Tennessee is ready to say good-bye.

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