Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive has suspended Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl for the Volunteers' first eight conference games as punishment for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators. Slive sent a letter Thursday that informed Pearl he is prohibited from participating in practices, meetings and any activities related to games between Jan. 8 and Feb. 5.
"The suspension from coaching duties has been imposed after a careful review of the facts established during the NCAA's investigation and reported to the SEC office," Slive said Friday in a statement. "I am extremely disappointed in the nature of the violations involving Coach Pearl and the Tennessee men's basketball program."
The dates of the suspension line up some rather intriguing scheduling quirks. For example, Pearl will miss the first half of the SEC season -- his last pre-SEC game is a Jan. 5 in-state battle with Memphis -- but will be able to return on Jan. 22 to coach at Connecticut. Afterward, he will be suspended again (and yes, if this concept is strange to you, you're not the only one) and will be unable to coach until a presumed return on Feb. 8. That game? At Kentucky. Against rival John Calipari. Oh boy.
The results of the suspension are indeed quirky, but none rise to the unprecedented strangeness at work in Slive's decision to suspend Pearl. It's not that the suspension is necessarily unwarranted. Pearl has, after all, admitted to lying to NCAA investigators. Some might think it's fair to allow the NCAA to rule on the case before suspending or otherwise punishing Pearl -- the NCAA proceeds this way, after all -- but as of 2010, Slive does have this sort of punitive power at his fingertips.
In his statement, Slive said that the suspension is a "significant" penalty, but "consistent with" a recent mandate by SEC to allow its commissioner to take action in cases like these. Presumably, that means cases in which a coach or player has admitted to committing NCAA violations, or is seen to be otherwise acting against the SEC's standards of conduct.
(The timing here is also interesting, given what's happening in SEC football this season. You could forgive the SEC if it's eager to show its disciplinary chops in the face of a brewing scandal involving the country's best football player in Cam Newton. It's feels a little like when athletics programs punish their basketball teams to save their football squads, but on a conference-wide scale. That might be too conspiratorial a read, but come on: it's not completely ridiculous.)
More than anything, though, the suspension shows just how far Bruce Pearl has fallen. By this point, Pearl -- a one-time NCAA whistleblower -- is officially besieged on all sides. On one side is the NCAA, bearing down on his program, the Volunteers' football operation, and even Tennessee's baseball team. On the other is the SEC, taking a heretofore anomalous action in suspending him from coaching his top-20 team during half of that team's league games. And right behind those two rather imposing forces is Pearl's own administration, which took unprecedented steps of its own in slashing his pay (and the pay of his assistants) and forbidding Pearl from recruiting off-campus in the next year.
Those penalties -- coupled with the threat of NCAA sanctions -- seemed bad enough. Now Pearl will be watching his team's first eight conference games in front of his home theater system. (Per his suspension, he's not even allowed to watch from the cheap seats.) If the Vols manage to make the NCAA tournament again this season, they will be the portrait of resilience.
And, in the big picture, it won't matter. All that matters for Pearl now -- whether he ends up a battered but viable head coach or a swiftly fired show-cause pariah -- is what happens off the court. Thus far, the Tennessee coach is losing. Frankly, it's starting to look like a blowout.