Editor's Note: Details were added to this post after the University of Tennessee released a pair of statements at 10 p.m. ET from chancellor Jimmy Cheek and athletic director Mike Hamilton, and after Andy Katz learned additional information regarding the March violation.
Tennessee, Bruce Pearl and his staff are expected to contest the secondary charge of illegal contact with a recruit in September at Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy -- an incident that occurred just days after Pearl had gone through a teary news conference as Tennessee announced sanctions against him and his staff.
The “bump” with 2012 recruit Jordan Adams happened right before Pearl was banned from off-campus recruiting for a year.
Is it a major violation? Not at all. According to multiple sources, the university knew of this violation in November, but it was the public nature of it being revealed in the notice of allegations in February and being charged as a separate major violation that caught the administration off guard.
And then the final straw for the university came earlier this month when, a source told ESPN.com, the staff committed an NCAA violation on March 6 in regards to a player pass list for the home game against Kentucky. It was a procedural matter, but enough was enough apparently and that tipped the scale toward the firing of Pearl and his staff, despite the fact that the university had stuck by him throughout the previous six months.
According to multiple sources, Pearl and the staff view the secondary charge from September as debatable and Pearl’s representation is expected to contest the charge. But Tennessee was blindsided and embarrassed by the secondary charge being included in the notice of allegations.
Then, late Monday night, another bombshell dropped with a statement from the university. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said: "The cumulative effect of the evolution of the investigation combined with a number of more recent non-NCAA-related incidents have led to a belief that this staff cannot be viable at Tennessee in the future.”
The non-NCAA related incident, according to multiple sources, was a violation of the Tennessee athletic department substance abuse policy by UT senior forward Brian Williams. Williams missed the last two regular-season games at South Carolina and at home against Kentucky due to what team officials said was a bad back.
Hamilton added that in September the school made a “very difficult decision to forego common national opinion and forge ahead with Bruce and his staff pending any further major infractions or issues that would preclude our basketball program from representing the University of Tennessee in the right manner.’’
The pass-list ticket violation from earlier this month apparently fit the bill.
Since Pearl was working without a contract, money concerns didn’t serve as an obstacle either. Tennessee’s decision to split from Pearl shouldn’t end up being a major financial hit, like the reported $7 million being paid to Paul Hewitt after Georgia Tech cut him loose. But UT will not be off the hook completely, as the media release said Pearl will be paid a cumulative figure of $948,728, which includes being paid $50,000 per month for 12 months from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012. The staff will also be paid their current salary rate through July 31.
But Tennessee can’t expect to get a summary disposition from the NCAA and avoid meeting with the committee on infractions June 10-11. According to the NCAA, all involved parties have to cooperate in written form to the committee on infractions to get a summary disposition. That means the NCAA enforcement staff, the university and all individuals must agree on all the facts to avoid a formal hearing.
The contact at Oak Hill is going to be disputed, and according to sources one of the charges against a football coach may be disputed as well, meaning that there wouldn’t be a summary disposition option.
The committee will likely want to hear from Pearl as well since he faces an unethical conduct charge for lying to the NCAA enforcement staff about a photo of the infamous cookout at his house with high school juniors. The NCAA rarely goes to a summary disposition for major cases, according to former COI chair Tom Yeager, who is also the commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Yeager also said that firing a head coach who is involved in violations doesn’t necessarily equate to getting lesser penalties in the future.
“That’s just speculation,’’ Yeager said. “Firing a coach isn’t the answer.’’
If that’s the case, then why didn’t Tennessee just fire Pearl in September instead of going through a charade of a season? The school essentially left him and his staff hanging by terminating his contract.
Pearl was docked $1.5 million for five years, banned from off-campus recruiting (as well as members of his staff, in a staggered form) and then SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended him for eight conference games. The reason all of this occurred was to keep Pearl. Going through all of these self-imposed and conference-levied penalties only made sense if Pearl was going to be the head coach for the long term.
Instead, the staff couldn’t recruit effectively during the season, the players were in a volatile situation and ultimately the season cascaded toward an embarrassing end with a 30-point loss to Michigan on Friday. Hamilton made comments prior to that game that essentially indicated Pearl and the staff were done. He apologized in Monday's statement saying that his comments were untimely prior to the game and “became an unneeded distraction to what has already been a year of distractions.’’
Now freshman Tobias Harris is likely to jump to the NBA, there’s likely to be other players leaving, and the recruiting class likely will be decimated. Harris said after the Michigan game that the players played with no heart and quit, a statement that Pearl couldn’t challenge based on the performance.
Did it have to come to this, though?
The program had gone to five straight NCAA tournaments prior to this season and the school consistently ranked in the top-five nationally in attendance. Firing Pearl in September would not have been popular among the fan base, but would have allowed a positive transition period toward a new head coach rather a season of chaos that will likely take the program back years.
If Tennessee is trying to outsmart the COI, it will likely fail. The moves made are so transparent that the COI won’t be fooled. And the collateral damage from this fiasco will be: Pearl’s career, which may be interrupted for years with a possible show-cause status levied by the NCAA; the staff’s growth, since assistants Steve Forbes, Tony Jones and Jason Shay will be viewed as damaged goods; and the players remaining, who are left to twist in the wind while the program awaits its fate from the NCAA over the summer.
The Tennessee job is still marketable long-term for someone like VCU’s Shaka Smart, who was once an SEC assistant at Florida. But the Vols have to be patient and whoever replaces Pearl better get a long-term deal.
This could take a while.