KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton says the university is paying the price for poor decisions, not from a lack of institutional control.
The Volunteers seem to be under siege with the NCAA having spent the past year and a half looking into possible violations by the men's basketball, football and baseball programs.
The NCAA charged Southern California with a lack of institutional control after finding violations by the school's football and basketball programs, but Hamilton has been reassured during the investigation about his department's NCAA compliance efforts.
"If we committed NCAA violations, we need to own up to that and we need to take penalties associated with that and move on," Hamilton told The Associated Press. "But this is far, far, far from a program that doesn't have institutional control or is not trying to live by the letter of the law."
After realizing basketball coach Bruce Pearl could be facing a charge of unethical conduct after misleading investigators about improperly hosting recruit Aaron Craft at home, Hamilton docked the coach's salary over several years by $1.5 million -- a year's worth of pay -- and banned him from off-campus recruiting for a year.
"The situations that we are dealing with today with exception of the telephone calls was someone making the wrong decisions and doing the wrong thing when faced with an issue," said Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of Tennessee's Knoxville campus and one of Hamilton's bosses.
Before Pearl lied to investigators over the summer, the Volunteers program likely would have been pegged with just a few minor violations for making excessive phone calls to recruits, allowing recruits and their families on official visits to stay in Knoxville longer than allowed and hosting a high school junior away from campus.
Though Tennessee officials hope their proactive punishments are severe enough, the NCAA could decide to add to them. USC's punishment includes a two-year bowl ban, four years' probation and significant scholarship losses, and the Trojans were forced to vacate 12 wins from the 2005 football season.
The Vols football program was included in the investigation after the athletics department reported six minor violations during the one-year tenure of coach Lane Kiffin in 2009. The investigation into football eventually focused on trips taken by members of the school's athletics hostess program to visit recruits.
"From time to time you may have someone who chooses to step out of bounds and chooses to do something unilaterally and you ask yourself what could you have done to prevent that, and that's a hard question," Hamilton said. "We can't control 500 some-odd student-athletes, 240-something staff members 24-7-365. We hope that we've given enough of the institutional philosophy, enough of the athletic department's philosophy that everyone understands there's a certain way we want to do it at Tennessee."
Hamilton noted that this isn't the first time Tennessee has been investigated by the NCAA, though this investigation has received more notoriety than any in the past.
"I look at it as a checks and balances system and an opportunity for us to find out what we need to be doing differently and can be doing better," he said. "What I've also found is we are doing many, many things very, very well as it relates to compliance specifically, and that's been confirmed by outside counsel and it's been confirmed by words of affirmation that I've heard from the NCAA and that's been refreshing. I don't want to have to go through many of these type times to find that out, but it's been good."
Hamilton and Cheek have pledged their commitment to Pearl, who has led the Vols to five straight NCAA tournament appearances, their first NCAA regional finals bid and their only No. 1 ranking.
Cheek and other campus officials have also asserted their support for Hamilton, who has been scrutinized by some unhappy fans for his firing of longtime football coach Phillip Fulmer and hiring of Kiffin.
During Hamilton's seven years as athletics director Tennessee athletics has raised $260.3 million, turned a $750,000 deficit into a $9 million surplus and spent $230 million on constructing or improving facilities. All of Tennessee's programs now have passing NCAA academic progress rates, and Hamilton feels confident football is headed in the right direction under new coach Derek Dooley.
"I really believe that he is on the right track that we've done the right thing in the basketball situation, and Mike has also had the best interest of the university at heart," Cheek said. "I believe absolutely that Tennessee's going to be OK, and we're going to rebound from this and we're going to have very successful athletic programs and the student-athletes are not only going to perform on the field but also academically."
Hamilton believes the investigation to be "substantially complete." The earliest the NCAA is expected to issue its notice of allegations to Tennessee is December, though the NCAA's Committee on Infractions wouldn't review the investigation's results for several months after allegations have been made.
Pearl knows that means it's going to be hanging over his program throughout the 2010-11 season. He's doing his best to keep his players' focus on the game and keep the fans supporting the Vols.
"The way you do that is by maintaining and continuing to do positive things rather than negative," he said.