The NCAA's due process rules are important rules. I know SEC commissioner Mike Slive had every right to hit Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl with an eight-game suspension because of his violations and the coordinated lying to the NCAA over them. The SEC presidents gave Slive that power to stem some of the league's cheating issues.
But just because Slive had the right to suspend Pearl does not make it the right thing to do. Pearl violated NCAA rules, lied about it and has since admitted it. But by those same rules, Pearl is entitled to a Notice of Allegations, 90 days to respond, and a hearing. Instead, the SEC hit him with a suspension before a Notice of Allegations was even handed down, short-circuiting and encroaching upon the NCAA process and diminishing the authority of the NCAA.
I believe it hurts the players and sends an awkward message at best. While Pearl is "suspended," he still can be with and travel with the team. And his assistants, who played a part in all this and were also given recruiting restrictions as penalties, will direct the games in his absence.
Plus, the suspension will undoubtedly affect the decision of the NCAA. Does the NCAA go easier on Pearl as a result of Slive's action? If so, his action is wrong. Does the NCAA hit Pearl harder as a result of Slive's action? If so, his action is wrong. If Slive can sanction Pearl, is he also obligated to sanction Tennessee for lack of institutional control? Or will he leave that up to the NCAA? What is the difference?
I believe Slive's instincts in suspending the coach were correct, because what Pearl did shocks the conscience. But in my judgment, it is not Slive's place to suspend Pearl. It is Tennessee's place to fire or keep Pearl, and it is the NCAA's place to investigate, judge and sanction Pearl and Tennessee. Reasonable minds can differ on such matters, but I think Slive should have respected the NCAA's rules, role and process, and waited for the NCAA to act. Just one man's opinion.
Look, we all have our place. I do not believe it is my place to call for Tennessee to keep or fire a coach. That is an institutional decision. But I do believe it is my place (and yours) to opine on whether I agree when such a decision is made. In such matters, which are difficult, I have often simply stated what I would do if I were in charge and had the decision making authority.
Well, Tennessee's decision has been made. The university decided to terminate Pearl's contract and keep him in place as an "at will" employee that can be dismissed at any time.
We can all agree or disagree, but if I were in charge at Tennessee, I would have dismissed Bruce Pearl. Just on established facts, there is no reasonable justification for his actions and those of his staff. Every coach understands that if he lies to the NCAA in the course of an investigation, he is likely to be fired. And if a player lies to the NCAA, his career is often over. How can we possibly expect it to be different for a coach than a player?
On the practical side, Pearl is likely to get slammed by the NCAA at the end of this process. The NCAA has a new president and I have little doubt the Committee on Infractions will not wish to be seen as weak in the eyes of its new president and the public.
Once you carefully read the letter in which Tennessee terminated the contract of Pearl, it is clear that he has been fired already, but UT is taking a "wait and see" approach with the NCAA process. In essence, Tennessee is trying to have it both ways. In my judgment, that is weak leadership.
I have serious concerns about some of the NCAA's rules and the fairness of the process, but not in this case. I believe the NCAA is likely to hit Tennessee harder with Pearl still in place, and if I were in charge in Knoxville, I would not put short-term wins over the long-term best interests of my athletic program.
I take no pleasure in saying this, but I would have fired Pearl and hired another coach. There are a lot of good coaches out there -- Pearl was not the only one. And he will survive this and get another job.
What a sad, sorry mess over a little secondary violation.
Some additional thoughts on Tennessee:
Outstanding coach: Pearl has a lot of controversy swirling around him, and rightfully so. But there is no denying the guy is one of the elite X-and-O coaches on the college scene. He is a master at preparing a team for a particular opponent and is an expert at the use of angles and adjustments in his offensive sets. Few are better in out-of-bounds situations, both offensively and defensively. Pearl will pre-set and pre-switch and Tennessee is among the best teams in the country at executing and defending out-of-bounds under plays. There are few that I have seen who are better in preparing a team and breaking down the game. He is truly a great coach.
Defensive whiz: One guy who is among the nation's elite on-ball defenders is Tennessee point guard Melvin Goins. I have really been impressed by his defense against some outstanding guards. Goins is strong, athletic and tenacious, and has given Corey Fisher, Ashton Gibbs and others fits. He will get right under your chin and force you into a mistake or to take the ball where you don't want to take it. In Tennessee's outstanding half-court defense, Goins is the key.
Oakland upset: Before the Pittsburgh game, the UT coaching staff was more concerned with Oakland. It wasn't that they thought that Pitt couldn't beat the Vols. Far from it. Win or lose, they understood the players would bring it against the highly ranked Panthers in the Steel City. Against Oakland, the Vols were primed for a letdown. Every year there are upsets around this time, with everything going on and disruptions in routines. And every year we seem just as surprised as the players. But make no mistake: Oakland has lost five games already this season. This win by the Golden Grizzlies was an upset.
A few more thoughts from around the country:
It is December: Who would have thought that Virginia would sit atop the ACC? And who would have thought that Duke would be fourth in the conference? In the Colonial, who would have thought that Old Dominion would sit in seventh place? Oh yeah, Duke hasn't played an ACC game yet and ODU has played one conference game. It's December, folks. Remember, Virginia was atop the ACC at this time last year, too. And North Carolina was 0-2 in the ACC in 2009. Chillax, it isn't even Christmas yet.
Georgetown layups: One of the things I enjoy most about going to practices is to watch the drills implemented by different coaches. Georgetown, under John Thompson III, does several drills of actions out of the Princeton offense, and the players are all encouraged to be creative around the basket with layups. In a philosophy on layups that came from Pete Carril, the Hoyas do something different at the rim every time. Thompson believes the offense will get you to within three feet of the basket, but the rest is up to you, and you cannot expect to take a simple, conventional layup every time. With so many long-armed athletes that block and change shots, you have to be able to adjust and complete a play. Georgetown's players are all very skilled and good around the rim. Those drills are one of the reasons why.
Anything is possible: Before his recent game at Temple, Thompson was asked to recall his most memorable game between Princeton and Penn. Without hesitation, Thompson said it was in February 1999 when he was a Princeton assistant to Bill Carmody. The Tigers were down 29-3 and then 40-13 in the second half against the Quakers. Incredibly, Princeton rallied and won the game in regulation. Just after Thompson accepted the Georgetown job, he was grabbing a slice at Conte's Pizza in Princeton when a Princeton supporter approached him. The man said he was at the Penn game and took a note card out of his wallet. It was a card that was handed out as a promotion to everyone at the game that night, and he had kept it in his wallet for all those years as a reminder that anything was possible. The man gave it to Thompson to remind him as he took over a rebuilding job at Georgetown. Thompson still has it, framed in his office. I love stories like that.
Dunphy's 400th: One of the finest coaches in the game is Temple's Fran Dunphy. He is also one of the game's best people. Like my partner Bill Raftery, I have never met anyone that had a negative word about Dunphy. He was a standout basketball and baseball player at La Salle, and has been ultra-successful as a coach. He won 10 Ivy League titles at Penn and has won three Atlantic 10 titles in a row at Temple, which is second only to the streak of five straight won by John Calipari and UMass. Dunphy won his 400th game (against Georgetown) last week and wanted not one second of fanfare or recognition. But he said he did get a call from Herb Magee of Division II Philadelphia University. Magee is the Philly legend known as "The Shot Doctor" and called Dunphy to needle him about his 400th by reminding him that Magee had won more than 900, so it was really no big deal. Dunphy enjoyed that more than any tribute. But Dunphy deserves a tribute. Just because a guy is quiet and unassuming doesn't mean we shouldn't loudly honor him, even if it makes Dunphy uncomfortable. He is one of the very best in our game.