Last March, Bruce Pearl was on top of the coaching world. He had taken his Tennessee Volunteers within one point of the Final Four as a six-seed which was the culmination of one of the most impressive coaching jobs in recent memory.
Pearl’s 2009-10 team was incredibly talented, and expected to contend for the SEC title with seniors Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism leading the way. Things were going along just fine for the 14th-ranked Vols until everything changed on Jan. 1.
That night, leading scorer Tyler Smith, and three other rotation players – Melvin Goins, Brian Williams and Cameron Tatum – were arrested in Knoxville on gun and drug possession charges. Tennessee’s season could have ended right there, especially after Smith was dismissed from the team. However, a mere nine days after the incident, the Volunteers stunned No. 1 Kansas in Knoxville playing with only six scholarship players. This resiliency would define the Vols for the rest of the season, as they eventually made their way into the Elite Eight, exceeding everyone’s expectations for the team.
Last year was Pearl’s shining moment, the result of a long, difficult personal journey to reach that point in his career. In 1989, while an assistant coach at Iowa, Pearl recorded a telephone conversation between himself and top recruit Deon Thomas, in which Thomas admitted to being offered an SUV and cash to attend the University of Illinois. He then turned around, and gave the tapes to the NCAA with memos describing the sequence of events. Thereafter, Pearl was persona non grata in the coaching industry. He was seen as a rat who couldn’t be trusted and nobody wanted any part of him.
After being shut out from the Division I level, Pearl began coaching at Division II Southern Indiana where he was remarkably successful, leaving the program with a 246-31 record that included a Division II National Championship. Pearl was then hired by Division I Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Just like at Southern Indiana, Pearl experienced immediate success, leading UW-Milwaukee to its first two NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet Sixteen. After his Sweet Sixteen season, Pearl was hired by Tennessee with the hopes he could revive their men’s basketball program. Well, Pearl did more than revive the program.
With his boisterous, outgoing personality and full-court press, Pearl led the Volunteers to 22 wins in his first season, an eight win improvement from the previous season. He also made headlines for painting up his body for a Tennessee women’s basketball game in order to show support for women’s athletics. Additionally, he became known for his sideline antics, and bright orange blazer on the sideline that made him one of the most exciting and energetic coaches in all of college. At Tennessee, he led the Vols to their first ever No. 1 ranking, and the aforementioned Elite Eight, before it all came crashing down this year.
In September, it came out that Pearl had made impermissible phone calls to recruits and had recruits over to his house for an illegal barbeque. Pearl was then accused of lying to investigators about the matter which led a teary-eyed press conference on Sept. 10 where Pearl admitted wrongdoing, and promised to take full responsibility for his actions. He was docked $1.5 million in pay over the life of his contract by Tennessee, and then later was suspended for the first eight SEC games by SEC commissioner Mike Slive. And now, this past Wednesday, Pearl received an official Notice of Allegations from the NCAA that accuses him of unethical conduct amongst other charges, and even revealed a new bombshell. The newest piece of damning evidence against Pearl occurred four days after his astonishing press conference when he is alleged to have had illegal contact with Oak Hill Academy star Jordan Adams. All of this seems to signal that Bruce Pearl will once again be persona non grata in the NCAA.
It is truly astonishing to see how far Bruce Pearl has fallen. Here was a guy who worked so hard to get himself back on college basketball’s biggest stage, and is so successful at what he does, and now it will all likely be gone. Pearl made Tennessee basketball relevant. He made a football school care about basketball from December to March, something that is not easy to do in the football-mad southeast. He was beloved by Tennessee fans and players alike, glorified and worshipped by everyone in orange. He had finally shown that he had what it takes to belong amongst the elite coaches in college basketball. Now, he has thrown it all away.
It is not likely Pearl will be able survive and keep his job after the NCAA is done with him. They have come down hard on coaches and players who have lied to NCAA investigators in the past, and I’m sure will do so this time with Pearl. With Pearl essentially a lame duck now, one question stands out above the rest: Can Pearl come back from the dead yet again, or will this be the last straw in what could have been a remarkable career?
What do you think?
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