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Triple Trouble For Tennessee Under The NCAA’s Microscope

In the 1970s, Tennessee basketball players Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld were featured on a Sports Illustrated cover beside the words “Double Trouble From Tennessee.”

Don’t be surprised to see a new SI cover bearing the words “Triple Trouble For Tennessee.”

The Vol athletic department is under the NCAA microscope right now and there’s plenty to talk about.  Here’s a point-by-point breakdown of what’s making Rocky Top so rocky right now:


* Football

Initially, it was believed that the NCAA was snooping around Knoxville to get the dirt on the Lane Kiffin regime.  Other issues have to come to light — which we’ll get to in a moment — and the focus shifted from football to basketball in most fans’ eyes.  Word even leaked out late last week that the UT athletic department didn’t expect anything serious to come from the NCAA’s investigation into football.  Only secondary violations were on the docket.

Well, as we said when Steve Spurrier dared the NCAA to poke around South Carolina (which they’re now doing), you don’t assume anything positive when the words “NCAA” and “investigators” are involved.  Georgia fans learned that with the recent AJ Green ruling, too.

It now looks as though last December’s Hostess-gate at Tennessee might have spawned a major violation after all.  Former quarterbacks coach David Reaves supposedly knew about the hostesses’ out-of-state trip last September but chose not to inform UT compliance officials.  They didn’t become aware of the issue until December.  The fact that Kiffin’s brother-in-law — who wasn’t asked to go with the family out to Southern Cal, by the way — didn’t pass along what he knew about the violation could be viewed as the dreaded “cover up” in the NCAA’s eyes.

So there’s the possibility of one major violation and several secondary violations (free drinks for football players at a Knoxville bar, illegal contact with recruits, etc) in football. 

And that’s just from what we know now.  As we always say, the NCAA might know a lot more than we think. 


* Baseball

We don’t cover baseball here at MrSEC.com, but since this involves an NCAA probe into UT’s entire athletic department, we’ll mention the sport… because it, too, is under investigation.

There are believed to be two minor issues regarding the sport and nothing major.

Well, that’s just from what we know now.  As we always say, the NCAA might know a lot more than we think.


* Basketball

Bruce Pearl has grabbed the spotlight in all of this even though his crimes were — relatively speaking — minor.  The Vols’ coach and his staff made about 100 impermissible phone calls to recruits, if reports are accurate.  Pearl also had three high school juniors (all committed at the time) over to his house for what was believed to be a barbecue.  Traditionally, those violations are deemed “major” but the penalties for such infractions are not devastating.  In most cases, those crimes would be hit with recruiting restrictions, but no loss of scholarships or postseason bans.

But Pearl lied to investigators.  Like Richard Nixon with Watergate, a simple admission of guilt would have put the matter to bed with very little punishment.  Instead, the lie could bring down Pearl’s entire regime.

Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com writes that the coaches he’s spoken to weren’t wowed by the cheating, but by the lying.  “Why would Pearl be so stupid…” as to take a photo with kids at his house?  …as to lie to investigators over something relatively minor?  That’s what coaches are saying to Parrish anyway.

Gregg Doyel, also of CBS Sports, wants heads to roll.  He wants Pearl fired.  He wants Mike Hamilton fired.  He calls Pearl’s lie to investigators “unforgivable.”  (Firable?  Okay, but unforgivable?  Doyel might want to venture into a church sometime.  In fact, that might prevent him from calling for a firing a week, which seems to be his M.O.)  Doyel isn’t the only columnist calling for Pearl’s ouster.  From The Birmingham News to USA Today, we’ve linked you to “He’s gotta go” columns all week.

But one reason Pearl hasn’t been canned — aside from the fact he’s taken UT from a flop to the top — is his contract.  ESPN.com’s Andy Katz reports that Pearl cannot be fired for cause without paying him until there is an NCAA “finding” against him.  Even then, the contract states that it must be determined that Pearl “knowingly engaged in conduct that was a significant NCAA violation.”

According to an attorney ESPN hired to look at Pearl’s contract, UT’s coach has a deal that affords him more protection than the one Jim O’Brien had at Ohio State.  Even after O’Brien admitted to paying a Yugoslavian player for humanitarian aid, he still collected $2.4 million from the Buckeyes on the way out the door.

The attorney said that the word “significant” is the issue.  The contract does not say “secondary” or “major violation,” it says “significant.”  And “significant” is a matter of opinion, not an official NCAA term.

By most accounts, the violations committed by Pearl could be considered “major,” but they’re not significant when compared to other programs (and past NCAA penalties handed down for similar violations).  Lying to investigators might be unethical, but is that a significant “violation” of NCAA rules?  Attorneys would debate that point.  And again, Pearl eventually come clean about the lie, too. 

No one near the Tennessee program expects any major NCAA violations to be uncovered in the basketball program (cars, money, etc).

But that’s just from what we know now.  As we always say, the NCAA might know a lot more than we think.


* Overall Issues

The NCAA is investigating at least three Tennessee programs — football, basketball and baseball.  They have found likely secondary violations and possibly one major violation in football (involving what could be considered a coach’s cover-up).  They have supposedly found some secondary violations in baseball, too.  And — if reports are to be believed — they have found several violations in basketball that were likely made worse by a coach’s lie.

The NCAA could view these instances separately and go relatively easy on the Volunteers.  Perhaps the NCAA won’t look at UT’s program as being in the same ballpark as Southern Cal.  Perhaps Pearl will get credit for admitting his initial fib.

Or maybe the NCAA will lump all of this together and hammer Tennessee over a perceived “lack of institutional control.”  We’re talking about one coach (Reaves) not coming forward with a violation and another (Pearl) lying about a violation.  It’s likely the NCAA won’t like that… even though Reaves is gone and Pearl came clean.

For now, there’s just no telling what the NCAA might do.  There is no precedent for such a wide swath of issues — some major, most minor.  Pearl’s canard just complicates the matter further.

Best guess — and that’s ALL this is — Tennessee will get hit with minor penalties in football and baseball and major recruiting restrictions in basketball (due to Pearl’s fabrication).  Pearl will keep his job because he lied about somewhat small issues.  But Hamilton will take the fall for the entire mess… with former football coach Phillip Fulmer set to step in as his replacement.

But that’s just from what we know now.  As we always say, the NCAA might know a lot more than we think.

(And here’s hoping no other SEC schools find themselves in such a mess.  One investigation?  No problem.  But three?  That’s a pain to keep up with!)

 


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