Bruce Pearl has been fired by UT. Interesting article

Are Tennessee's President and Chancellor Firing Bruce Pearl over AD's Objection? (Pulled Bleacher Report Article)

by John Barr on Monday, March 21, 2011 at 10:31am

Are Tennessee's President and Chancellor Firing Bruce Pearl over AD's Objection?

By Mark Hancock (Tennessee Featured Columnist) on March 20, 2011 - Knoxville

KNOXVILLE - What follows is a summary of what has been gathered from various sources at The University of Tennessee, all of whom have asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, mostly to protect their job security. Several members of the local media have confirmed they have been told much of what follows.

It provides an insight into the way the NCAA deals with universities in their enforcement of their bylaws and the dynamics between the University administration, board, boosters and the athletics department.

The UT Board of Trustees met in executive session last fall near the time of the news conference that revealed that the NCAA was investigating the Vol basketball program. Head coach Bruce Pearl was discussed in that meeting, and at that time, the board was split over whether to keep him employed.

Millionaire Jim Haslam, who played on General Robert Neyland's National Championship football team in 1951, is UT's most influential booster and an adviser on all athletics matters, whose opinion is highly valued. He does not tell the University what to do in a heavy-handed way, but supported Pearl continuing as coach.

Haslam is a top fundraiser for both the University and many political officeholders. One of his sons, Jimmy, a UT graduate like his father, runs his nationwide gasoline and diesel retailing firm, Pilot Oil and Travel Centers and is part-owner of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. His other son, Bill, was just elected Governor of Tennessee and is Chairman of the UT Board of Trustees in that position.

Pearl campaigned statewide for Haslam last fall and the Governor didn't distance himself from Pearl after Pearl apologized for his mistakes. In fact, the Haslam family has remained solidly supportive of the embattled coach.

Athletics director Mike Hamilton argued that since the season was less than two months away and that Pearl's son Steven was on the team playing his final year as a senior, that it would be best to keep Pearl on the job. Hamilton apparently also wanted to make sure the had an opportunity to buy time to save Pearl.

The NCAA was not happy with the fact that despite UT self-imposing some sanctions on the basketball staff, Pearl and his assistant coaches were allowed to recruit in the fall contact period following that press conference.

Thus, the NCAA enforcement staff interviewed and scrutinized everyone whom the coaches met with over that two-week period.

Included in those they interviewed was a prospect who was a junior in high school in Georgia, who was therefore off-limits to talk to college coaches. The prospect told the NCAA that he had a three- to five-minute conversation with Pearl and associate head coach Tony Jones.

The NCAA, noting this, later charged Pearl and UT with a major violation, mainly because Pearl did not report the encounter to the UT compliance office.

In fact, UT only found out about the "bump" with the athlete after the attorney that UT hired to help them with the NCAA negotiations found out about it from the NCAA. Had the attorney not found that out, it would have been a total surprise to UT when they received the letter of allegations from the NCAA this winter.

When confronted about the bump, Pearl said he didn't report it because he had no clue it was a violation at all and that he and Jones had talked to the kid for less than 30 seconds.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive was also made aware of the “bump” in UT's self-reporting of it and then suspended Pearl for eight SEC games, half the league season, in late November, hoping he could mitigate the punishment for Pearl.

Clearly, as subsequent events have proven, the NCAA was still not pleased.

The UT administration, including Dr. Joe DiPietro, the newly appointed President of the statewide University system, and Dr. Jimmy Cheek, the new chancellor of the Knoxville campus, was not happy at all with the latest turn of events. In December, the coaching staff was told about the latest issue and the administration's unhappiness with it.

This is when reality set in that there was a real possibility that they would all be gone after this season. The staff's appraisal coincided with the start of Tennessee's bad play after the NIT Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City, when eventually at least some of the players began to hear there were some real issues that might mean their coaches would be fired.

The coaches did their best to downplay what was going on and assure the players everything was fine, but clearly, something was going on in their heads with these distractions. Privately, families of the coaching staff began discussing with close friends the possibility they would all be looking for new jobs.

Hamilton continued his public and private support of Pearl, and the UT compliance team tried vigorously to work with the NCAA to have the “bump” removed as being a violation at all from the letter of allegations, arguing it wasn't, in fact, a violation.

Hamilton knew that had they been able to do that, it would never come out publicly, and that some of the support Pearl had lost with the UT administration would thus be restored.

UT compliance argued that it was basically less than even a minor violation, that it was only 30 seconds in length, and they cited numerous other instances of coaches at other schools who weren’t even reprimanded for similar bumps. The NCAA didn’t buy that argument and charged Pearl with a major violation for not reporting it.

When the bump incident was revealed in the letter of allegations, the only new charge that wasn't previously known publicly, UT downplayed it with the media, saying they already knew about it, that it was minor, and thought they could get it removed in the hearing process to follow. Hamilton asked for a summary disposition of the entire case, basically a plea bargain deal, but that was denied by the NCAA.

UT had hoped they could find out the potential penalties and mitigate them by essentially pleading guilty to several things, not challenging or appealing them, and saving Pearl.

The NCAA, however, wants Pearl to testify under oath in front of the committee on infractions, something he wouldn’t have had to do if UT were granted the summary disposition.

The NCAA believed UT would try to keep Pearl, something they were determined not to have happen, as they want him out of college coaching, at least for a period of time.

This is basically blatantly interfering with the University's right to employ whomever they want, a serious intrusion and interference into institutional contractual relationships, something that might well be successfully appealed and overturned by a judge in court, especially since the NCAA's track record in legal matters has historically been poor.

Behind the scenes, however, the damage was already done, and Pearl’s fate had been decided by those above Hamilton, who was called into a meeting with the Chancellor and/or the President earlier this month and told Pearl would be let go by the end of the season.

The UT administration is basically firing Pearl because the NCAA let it be known that if UT stuck with Pearl, they would get hammered by the committee, that Pearl would get a two-year suspension and show-cause order as to why he should be allowed to coach again, that UT would lose up to two scholarships for two to three years, have major recruiting restrictions imposed, and at least a one-year postseason ban.

If, on the other hand, Pearl were let go or allowed to resign, he would still get his show-cause order and suspension as far as his personal sanctions go, but UT's institutional penalties would only be to only suffer a loss of a scholarship for a year or two with some minor recruiting restrictions, such as the loss of a few on-campus visits.

The NCAA essentially made a case that Pearl lied again to save himself by not self-reporting the bump. Basically the NCAA is, rightly or wrongly, blackmailing UT to fire Pearl or else.

For the past two weeks, Hamilton has worked feverishly to try and keep Pearl. He has gone back to the NCAA asking again for the summary disposition and met again with the Chancellor and the President to discuss the financial fallout from the loss of donations, ticket sales, and concessions, as well as the hit to the program’s ability to compete successfully if Pearl is terminated.

Hamilton argued that UT would still be better off keeping Pearl and taking the NCAA hit, believing it could be negotiated down to a one-year show-cause order and suspension for Pearl, two scholarships lost for two years and minor recruiting restrictions, instead of starting all over again with a new coach, which is always a crap shoot, as past experience has shown.

The premise is that UT's program will take some steps backward no matter what happens, but with Pearl, they would take a few steps back. Without him, they would take many more steps back, perhaps making things two or three times as worse. Of course, Pearl's firing will also result in any players, including freshman All-American Tobias Harris, being able to immediately transfer to another school should he decide not to go pro, further crippling the program.

Last week, Hamilton, apparently in a brief heated exchange with Cheek, was told by the administration to drop his defense of Pearl and that the decision to fire Pearl was irrevocable. He was also told that he needed to lay the groundwork for Pearl’s departure, which resulted in the comments he made in a local radio interview for which he has been excoriated in the national media.

Reportedly, Hamilton was also told in Atlanta last week by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive that Pearl must go due to the fact that Slive doesn't want major penalties handed to a league school that could be mitigated by Pearl's firing. Slive is pressuring the UT administration to fire Pearl, just as the NCAA is doing.

Also last week, Pearl met with Haslam and was made aware of his fate. They discussed a financial settlement, and Pearl was planning to resign at the end of the season, making this known to some close friends and family last weekend.

Pearl was upset that the news of his resignation was leaked ahead of time, as he hoped it would be looked at favorably by UT fans, with him announcing that he was not wanting to cause UT anymore harm. Hamilton, however, was told by his bosses to get the word out that Pearl would not be back. Apparently, this was done because UT administrators in a mix-up in communications didn’t think or know Pearl would go quietly and resign.

This is one reason why Pearl and his assistants have said they wanted to be back, and that their six-year record speaks for itself. Ultimately, absent a change of heart by the UT administration, Pearl is expected to still resign soon, and he and his assistants will get buyouts. The fact that Pearl will not be Tennessee's coach next season has been decided, barring a last minute flip-flop by the President and Chancellor, which, unfortunately, few think will happen, unless a last-ditch public relations campaign on behalf of Pearl that is being waged behind the scenes is successful.

Apparently, however, that campaign is meeting with some success, with some trustees, donors, legislators and others in Nashville weighing in with their support of Pearl. Media commentaries portraying Pearl as being given a raw deal are having some effect.

Mike Hamilton apparently will will also remain as Athletics Director, with his fate resting on the success or failure of his recent hiring of Derek Dooley as the football coach on The Hill. The administration is also very happy with the financial side of the athletic department, as well as the facility improvements.

As bad a public relations guy as Hamilton may have been, he has done a lot for UT and truly wanted Pearl to stay and did everything he could to make that happen. In the end, the administration said Pearl was not bigger than the University and that a few, maybe several, years of bad basketball, is a price that is worth paying to save the University's integrity and reputation, and for UT's image nationally in the media to not be one of a rogue school.

Since when, however, have Tennesseans been worried about image? As Coach Stu Aberdeen used to say, there are a million ways to mess up and only one way to do things right. Keeping Bruce Pearl at Tennessee is the right thing to do. His players, who still all look up to him as their mentor despite his human failures, all still want him as their coach.

Proportionality is a principle that must be applied here, too. The punishment must fit the crime. Pearl's self-imposed penalties already exceed those of Ohio State Head Football Coach Jim Tressel, who deliberately lied to the NCAA in writing and played star athletes for an entire season and the Sugar Bowl that should have been declared ineligible, in order to gain a competitive advantage. The OSU administration is standing firmly behind their coach, as the UT administration did for awhile, but is that resolve and solidarity crumbling just due to NCAA and SEC pressure?

The fans Pearl brought in will stay away in droves if the administration messes up and fires such a popular figure, one of the few people in athletics with charisma and public relations skills, which the school desperately needs. The irony is there is no groundswell to replace him coming from the people who really matter, and yet the elite seem to feel a change must be made to placate outside third parties whose motives are questionable at best. In fact, the groundswell from the masses is in total support of Pearl, with a "Save Bruce Pearl" Facebook page created just yesterday and not widely publicized already having 5,000 sign-ups.

For school administrators like DiPietro and Cheek to make such unpopular decisions with the fan and donor base after being on the job for such a short time in their respective positions, having both come from Florida, they may be committing career suicide themselves.

The UT Athletics Department is one of the few in the nation that is self-sufficient, receives no state funding, and even turns a rather large profit in its $100 million annual budget, to the point of giving money to academics that may not be there to give any longer if the $13 million annually that Pearl's program brought in diminishes under a new coach.

Perhaps the school president and chancellor should remember that the school's nickname, Volunteers,  derives from the overwhelming numbers who volunteered to serve in our nation's wars. Those Tennesseans, like Davy Crockett, are ready to fight the hypocrisy of the NCAA and their inconsistent rulings, most of which have been overturned when challenged in court.

Drs. DiPietro and Cheek, both coming from an agriculture background academically, might also be surprised at how Tennessee farmers, which still make up a good portion of the state's economy and make up a lot of Pearl's deep support statewide, might figuratively come after them with pitchforks, or ride their John Deere tractors right up to the doorstep of their Andy Holt Tower offices, in protest.

Speaking of Andy Holt, who fought for UT in everything he did as UT's iconic President in the 1960's when legendary Coach Ray Mears was building the UT basketball program, there's no question where Andy would've stood, on the side of Tennessee's best interests, not buckling when faced with a challenge from the NCAA or anyone else. 

Maybe Tennessee needs to make sure they start putting real Tennesseans like General Andy Jackson in charge on The Hill. He ran the British out of New Orleans and stood tall in Washington as one of our most revered US Presidents of the people. Perhaps Governor Haslam, the Chairman of the UT Board of Trustees, who was elected by a huge margin statewide and is very politically astute and savvy, is listening, has his finger on the pulse of the people of his great state, and will carry out their overwhelming wishes.