Tennessee’s decision to severely discipline head coach Bruce Pearl for initially lying to NCAA investigators is expected to send a strong message to the rest of the coaching profession -- and just importantly, to the NCAA Committee on Infractions as it waits to hear this case.
The message? Don’t lie.
If you do, the school and the NCAA will come down harshly. Misleading investigators ultimately cost Kelvin Sampson his job at Indiana and Dave Bliss his at Baylor. It’s also why Connecticut assistant coaches Patrick Sellers and Beau Archibald are out of work as the Huskies wait for an Oct. 15 hearing in front of the Committee on Infractions.
Pearl, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance and regular-season wins over 1-seeds Kansas and Kentucky, is fortunate that he still has a job. His admission that he misled investigators comes after multiple off-court issues with players, including a high-profile New Year’s Day arrest that involved four players, a gun and marijuana.
There have only been a handful of cases in which a coach, regardless of sport, kept his or her job after lying to investigators. What is not known at this time is whether there is a contractual issue that might have prevented Pearl from being terminated for cause prior to the conclusion of an investigation.
That decision was made at Ohio State when Jim O’Brien was fired for cause after he later admitted to making a payment to aid a recruit’s family in a war-torn nation. But O’Brien’s contract called for him to go through a completed NCAA investigation before he could be terminated. O’Brien ultimately won a lawsuit seeking financial damages, but still hasn’t returned to coaching.
During his teary news conference Friday in Knoxville, Pearl said: “I should have been forthcoming and honest,” and had he, “then the severity of penalties would have been considerably less.” He added that the university has chosen to stand by him and his coaching staff after assistants Steve Forbes, Tony Jones and Jason Shay all got a 25 percent cut in their salaries, as well as an off-campus recruiting ban for each of them (Jones nine months; Forbes one year; Shay three months), which will be a serious hit for UT’s recruiting over the next academic year.
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager, who once chaired the Committee on Infractions, said Tennessee’s actions so soon into the process -- prior to a notice of allegations -- means “they must have found significant violations and want to get out before what they anticipate will be normal sanctions.”
Yeager added that, “anytime you run into real ethical things, it increases the stakes. That’s pretty serious. There are trust issues here. If you can’t trust the guy, then you usually do part ways.’’
After a 17-month investigation, the NCAA sent a notice of inquiry after looking into the way Tennessee was handling calls to recruits.
The NCAA hasn’t finished the actual notice of allegations because the case, much like the recently concluded USC football and men’s basketball case, will involve football and basketball. The notice will include the specific allegations levied against Pearl and his staff.
In Tennessee’s self-imposed sanctions, the school only mentioned that it involved recruits, indicating it was more than one. Sources have said that UT was being investigated for its phone calls toward one-time committed player Josh Selby, who later signed with Kansas and is still waiting to be cleared to play this season.
Once the notice of allegations is sent to the university, expected to be sometime this fall, then Tennessee will have 90 days to respond. Once that occurs, a date is scheduled for the school to go in front of the Committee on Infractions, which meets six times a year in February, April, June, August, October and December.
Yeager said Tennessee will get credit for what it’s doing at this stage in the process. Most of the time, the COI will accept the majority of the penalties. USC accepted the first of its two postseason bowl bans and is just appealing the second. The Trojans gave their men’s basketball program a postseason ban and some recruiting restrictions last season and the COI didn’t add on to that penalty.
Yeager said by keeping Pearl and his staff and disciplining them now, it should mitigate the criticism that the NCAA receives about players and staff suffering the effects of penalties that didn’t occur under their watch.
According to Yeager, the COI could still decide to put a show-cause penalty on any of the coaches involved in this case, even with the sanctions Tennessee already handed down. Coaches can receive a show cause even if they are retained at the school.
“You can restrict activity at the school, even if the coach is still there,’’ Yeager said. “There are a lot of situations where the school says they still believe in this coach, even though he made a horrible decision.’’
The NCAA’s enforcement staff has been charged to clean up the game as much as possible. The reason there appears to be more schools in power-six conferences under scrutiny of late is that the enforcement staff is looking closely at all elite recruits. The NCAA investigators have let it be known to college coaches that they are looking at everything and using all information they receive.
But the enforcement staff is also receiving more cooperation than it has in the past from coaches. The agent/runner issue has pushed more coaches to speak out and provide information, especially in the major conferences, where information is flowing freely in a more open media age.
Tennessee sent a strong message -- the right message -- that lying to investigators won’t be tolerated and a severe punishment can follow. And if it’s truly “all about money,” then perhaps pay cuts will be another wake-up call to get coaches’ attention.
If Friday’s news out of Knoxville doesn’t make coaches sweat, I’m not sure what will.