CHARLOTTE — Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl couldn’t have been aware of the symbolism during his team’s practice session Thursday at Time Warner Cable Arena. But there he was at center court, standing on top of an NCAA logo watching his players shoot free throws.
Pearl, after all, finds himself in the middle of a firestorm created by an NCAA investigation as the eighth-seeded Volunteers get set to face Michigan in the first-round of the NCAA tournament Friday afternoon.
Already he’s admitted to lying to NCAA investigators about an illegal barbeque he held for potential recruits at his home in September 2008. As a result, Tennessee voided his contract and forced him to sign a one-year letter of appointment for this season. The SEC subsequently suspended Pearl for the first eight games of conference play.
Then when the NCAA completed the investigation last month, its letter of allegations revealed Pearl and his associate head coach, Tony Jones, may have had impermissible contact with a prospect from Oak Hill Academy (Va.) in September 2010.
All that came to a head Wednesday when Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton created the ultimate distraction by conducting an interview with a Knoxville, Tenn., radio station in which he refused to commit to whether Pearl would remain coach once this NCAA tournament run ends.
“When you put yourself in the position where you provide false and misleading information to the NCAA and you go through an NCAA investigation, you put yourself in a position where you’re going to be evaluated at the end of the year,” Pearl said in an opening statement of his news conference Thursday. “The announcement yesterday publicly came as a bit of a surprise, but if that’s where we are, then that’s where we’re at.”
From there Pearl tried his best to turn the topic back to Tennessee’s game against Michigan, but nine of the 11 questions he faced revolved around Hamilton’s comments. Reporters wondered whether the coach felt like he’d been “thrown under the bus,” or if he believed he could be coaching his last game at Tennessee in this tournament.
Pearl offered little insight, only saying that, “I hope it’s not going to detract at all from [the players’] experience.”
The dilemma facing the Volunteers is that, on the court, there is no denying how successful Pearl has been. During his six years on campus, Pearl has led Tennessee to a school-record six-consecutive NCAA tournament berths, including its first-ever Elite 8 appearance a year ago. Attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena, meanwhile, has ranked in the top five nationally every year during Pearl’s tenure.
His team seemed to take the new development in stride, laughing and joking around with a video camera when the Volunteers’ locker room was open to the media. The past 24 hours, they said, only mirrored the sort of drama that has surrounded this entire season.
“We watch Sportscenter. We know what’s going on. Obviously we’re aware that coach is getting evaluated,” leading scorer Scotty Hobson said. “It makes it irrelevant because we’ve had to battle so much adversity this season, and there has been infractions and things going on. We’ve overcome more than this, so this will be nothing.”
The Volunteers went 5-3 with Pearl suspended at the start of the SEC season, a microcosm of their season. Tennessee’s schedule included 18 games against teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament, and its resume featured a season sweep of in-state rival Vanderbilt and wins over Pittsburgh and Villanova.
But Tennessee enters Friday’s game with losses in seven of its past 11 contests, not to mention early-season defeats against Charlotte and College of Charleston.
“It was difficult,” said Jones, who coached the team during Pearl’s suspension. “My deal was just to keep the boat afloat. We got through it and we got to the NCAA tournament.”
Perhaps the person in the most awkward position this week is Pearl’s son, Steven, a senior forward who is averaging 1.9 points per game off the bench this season.
He said Thursday that his father doesn’t bring up the mounting allegations he now faces, but “when the time comes to talk about certain things, we will.” That, though, didn’t stop the younger Pearl from defending his old man in the wake of the latest episode in this season-long drama.
“He’s handled it like a man,” Pearl said. “I can’t say most people would have done it the way he’s done it. I have a lot more respect for him now. I’ve always had respect for him, but I’m just really proud of him after what’s gone on this whole year.
“He’s done great things for this program. Hopefully he’ll be back.”