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A Bad Homecourt Loss Will Rev Up The Pearl Talk At Tennessee

bruce-and-cuonzoCuonzo Martin is in trouble.  His Volunteers were expected by most to finish in or near the top 25, in the top four in the SEC, and very much in the NCAA Tournament.  At 6-4, with three losses to teams outside the RPI top 100 and a woeful SEC schedule still yet to play, it’s doubtful that even a great run by the Volunteers would earn Martin his first trip to the Big Dance.

And if the Vols don’t go dancing will Tennessee give Martin a fourth season at the helm?  Does the school even have the cash to buy him out if president Jimmy Cheek and AD Dave Hart wish to?  The school has paid off Phillip Fulmer, Derek Dooley and AD Mike Hamilton since 2008.  Tennessee also gave Bruce Pearl some walking money when he was fired… and he was fired for cause.

If nothing else, the UT athletic department has displayed the post-conversion generosity of Ebenezer Scrooge in recent years.

Martin’s contract was not extended this past year.  After this season he will have just two years remaining on a $1.3 million deal.  Assuming UT does have a little bit of cash to spend and Martin does not reach the tourney — it’s early, but the SEC looks really bad — then the question becomes: Will Tennessee try to hire Pearl back?

The powers-that-be at UT let Pearl go only after it became evident the NCAA would firebomb their program if they attempted to keep him (which the school initially tried to do).  Once fired, Pearl was handed a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators about a barbecue that welcomed some underage recruits in to his home.  Lying to the NCAA has been a major no-no for years.  Ask Jim Tressel who was handed a five-year show-cause.  (Missouri’s Frank Haith was lucky to avoid a show-cause penalty this offseason, but as we wrote at the time, the Miami investigation was so flawed we believe the NCAA went easy on those involved in order to just close the book on the whole affair.)

In addition to the lying and the barbecue, the NCAA viewed Pearl’s phone call to the father of Aaron Craft — one of the barbecue attendees — as an attempted cover-up.

While there are still some issues between Pearl and the NCAA and Pearl and UT officials, there are no such hard feelings between Pearl and the majority of the Vol fanbase.  The coach was the first man to take Tennessee to an Elite Eight.  He had success against Florida, Kentucky and Memphis.  He filled Thompson-Boling Arena.  And when the NCAA came after him he achieved full-on Robin Hood status in East Tennessee.

So now the same Tennessee officials who fired Pearl in the program’s best interest three years ago — the school got a slap on the wrist while Pearl and his coaches were handed show-cause penalties — could be facing a tough decision come March.

If Martin flames out, UT could re-hire Pearl.  His penalty ends in August.  Assistants would have to run the shop for a few months, but that’s a small price to pay for a proven winner.  Now, a lot of people would have to put on fake smiles at the press conference, but business is business and Pearl was good for business.  Most of the Vol fanbase would surely rejoice if he were to return.  The NCAA might have a different reaction.  Tennessee would be hiring a guy who lied to its investigators.  Think the NCAA wouldn’t have folks snooping around Knoxville on a regular basis?

And it’s not just the lie and the cover-up at Tennessee that might interest the NCAA.  Pearl was guilty of having an underage recruit to his house while he coached at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, too.  The NCAA might view that as more than a coincidence.  Hell, the three-year penalty handed Pearl suggests the NCAA flat doesn’t trust the guy.  So would UT officials risk becoming an NCAA hangout in order to hire back someone many of them don’t trust/like in the first place?  (For that matter, would Pearl want to work with some folks he doesn’t like/trust either?)

If Tennessee has an opening and it passes on Pearl, then there’s a much different kind of risk.  Coaches with show-cause penalties typically walk in the wilderness for years.  It took ex-California coach Todd Bozeman a decade to land another coaching gig at Morgan State, for example.  And he’s just about the only major college coach to bounce back from a show-cause.  But Bozeman was hit with an eight-year show-cause penalty for paying $30,000 to a player’s parents.  There’s a big difference between three years for lying and eight years for paying a player’s family.

Pearl might be the first show-cause coach to make a “quick” return to the sidelines.  Look at the SEC standings today and you’ll see that Martin isn’t the only coach who might get the boot come March.  Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Texas A&M could all have openings and — technically — could all decide to make a run at Pearl if they fire their current coaches.  There’s also the possibility that Memphis might whack an underachieving Josh Pastner and try to replace him with Pearl, a man the school once tried to steal from Tennessee (prior to his NCAA woes).

This all puts the Tennessee administration between a Rocky Top and a hard place.  If Martin goes bye-bye — and a home loss to NC State last night didn’t help his chances for survival — Vol brass will have to choose between re-hiring a guy who landed the school in NCAA hot water and passing on a proven winner who could wind up coaching against them inside the conference or inside their own state.

Add it up and you can be sure Tennessee’s president, AD and board will be pulling extremely hard for Martin to go on a wicked hot run between now and March.  As of today, however, it looks like UT’s gonna have some very tough choices to make over the next three months.


SEC fan
SEC fan

Hey John,

What is an "underage recruit"?  You used this term twice in this article and just wondering, what is the difference in an underage recruit and other recruits?  Thanks.


While I'm starting to believe that Martin is not going to last at Tennessee, I also think Pearl should not come back to Knoxville.  Lets move on and find a new coach to lead this team.  Unfortunately, it appears that Martin can't get this team started until January, and by that time it's probably too late with the lack of NCAA Tournament quality teams in the SEC.


nobody hated it more than i did when pearl was canned, but i knew it was the right thing to do.  i also knew that bruce was the best vol bball coach ever whose zipper was in front. this is the only vol athletic fiasco that's happened in the last seven years that i can't blame on hamilton.  this was totally on pearl.  i know in my heart of hearts that the vols will never see another coach like him in my lifetime, but i can't bring myself to believe that he should be rehired.  i'm all in favor of redemption and second chances, but it wasn't just his reputation he stained.  if he's rehired, we give up any pretense that the university of tennessee is any more than an excuse to field athletic teams.

disclosure: i'm a tennessee grad (71 & 73).


@JasonPollard13 it would be crazy the boys and I went last night not good! Bad attendance and really bad basketball!


@SabanSays Pearl to UA now i say i say we go ahead and offer him the job wait the day his show clause Aug 23rd 2014 i know and do it


This is not hard to determine at all. The easy answer is to move on without Bruce. That would be the wrong answer. The NCAA has compromised its integrity, if it has any left, with the Miami situation as well as others since Pearl's issues. Pearl came clean during the hearing. The issue was relatively minor until he made it worse by the lie. The others you point out were far worse violations and yet there's Haith on the court today. If Bruce is interested you ask him to come back, just with different assistants and a stringent reporting structure. You let the NCAA know in advance how it is going to work. Then you go win games again because he can win with just about anybody. He will have served his time in NCAA purgatory. It could be a beautiful redemption story that sells well to recruits/families.

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

SEC fan...

Coaches can't meet with kids off-campus before their senior year of high school. They can bump into them for a "Hi, how are ya." But they can't have juniors, sophomores, etc come to their home for a barbecue. Pearl had three juniors over, including Jordan McRae who signed with Tennessee. Easier to just say "underage recruit" than write all that into the story.

Many thanks for reading the site,


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