Curious timing for SEC's Pearl suspension

A contrite Bruce Pearl first met with the media on Sept. 10, admitting right then and there that he lied to the NCAA.

Six weeks later, on Oct. 27, documents revealed that Pearl had done even more -- he told recruits and their families to keep their little backyard visit quiet.

And on Friday, a full 70 days after everyone, including the guilty party himself, admitted that Pearl had not just cheated but had lied about it, the Southeastern Conference reacted.

“The suspension from coaching duties has been imposed after a careful review of the facts established during the NCAA investigation and reported to the SEC office,’’ SEC commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement announcing Pearl’s eight-game suspension. “I am extremely disappointed in the nature of the violations involving Coach Pearl and the Tennessee men’s basketball program.’’

While I laud the league’s actions and wish more conferences would hold their coaches similarly accountable, I can’t help but be curious about the timing of Slive’s hammer.

Why now? At Tennessee, nothing has changed since that initial news conference -- no letter of allegation from the NCAA, no more accusations seeping out. Practice started well over a month ago and the season last week. The Vols have played three games.

What has changed? Well, the image of the SEC as a league serious about rules enforcement for one.

That, in fact, has taken a beating lately.

For those not paying attention to the pigskin side of college sports -- or those who have been visiting a Buddhist temple for the past few weeks -- the SEC is in something of an all-points-bulletin disaster as an undefeated national-title contender, Auburn, and its Heisman trophy candidate quarterback, Cam Newton, face allegations of a pay-to-play scam.

The shots are coming rapid fire at Newton and his father, but the shrapnel isn’t just shredding the quarterback. It’s slicing the SEC as well.

Mississippi State coaches first reported to their league offices in January that an agent’s representative had solicited money from their boosters to ensure Newton’s appearance in a Bulldog uniform. The SEC asked for more information and when Mississippi State failed to produce it, the league sat on the information for more than six months. Not until late July did things start really heating up when the conference acted upon what assistant commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN.com was "specific information."

And since the scam went public, the league’s sole action has been to reprimand Mississippi State, complaining that the school was tattling in public.

That’s led to a few more hot lights turned on the SEC offices, with critics wondering why the conference did nothing.

So pardon my skepticism when Slive lets fly with his anvil of moral authority on Pearl now. It reeks of Mike Garrett’s efforts at USC -- maybe if we hit the basketball team really hard, no one will notice what the football team has been up to.

I appreciate what Slive, ever the lawyer, referred to as a need for "careful review," but the facts were pretty much laid out on the table and undisputed. At the very least, he could have announced Pearl’s suspension last week, when the games began.

Instead he punishes Pearl now, while the storm swirls around Newton.

The Southeastern Conference long has been labeled the renegade conference in college athletics. When I interviewed 20 coaches this summer and asked them to name the dirtiest league in the country, the overwhelming majority picked the SEC.

It’s a reputation well-earned. Since 1990, its member schools have been found guilty of 22 major infractions, a runaway lead among major conferences. The league runs an unmatched streak of 25 years with at least one sport at one school on probation. It’s an image that Slive strove to combat when he first took over, at one point vowing to have all of his programs off probation within five years.

But lately, his hopes have been derailed at every turn.

Nothing, however, is bigger than the Newton story. It involves the nation’s best player on one of the nation’s best teams, a veritable tsunami that already has hijacked the entire college football season and thrown Heisman voters into a turmoil.

And the SEC is caught in the middle of all of it. It has two member schools at war, with one fan base clamoring for Newton to sit and another insisting he did nothing wrong.

Jerry Tarkanian once said, "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it’s going to give Cleveland State two more years probation."

Sounds familiar.

In this case, the SEC is so worried about Auburn, it’s gone ahead and suspended Bruce Pearl.