I like Bruce Pearl. I like his enthusiasm. I like the fact he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously, the way a lot of big-time coaches do. I like his coaching record at Tennessee, which is 126-46 in five seasons.
But if Pearl coaches college basketball this coming season, the NCAA and the University of Tennessee are officially the biggest jokes in all of sports.
The NCAA hasn't decided what it will do with Pearl, who tearfully admitted at a news conference that he lied to NCAA investigators about hosting high school juniors at his home. That's a no-no; only seniors are allowed to visit coaches' homes. It's a rule even an unseasoned coach knows not to break; but when investigators showed Pearl a photo of recruits in his house, he caught amnesia.
Seriously, who lies about their own house?
"I learned that it's not OK to tell the truth most of the time, but that you have to tell the truth all the time," Pearl said during the news conference. "I have no tolerable answer for why I didn't tell the truth the first time, and I take full responsibility for my actions."
In a pre-emptive strike, Tennessee took aim at Pearl's wallet, reducing his salary by $1.5 million over the next five years. And beginning Friday, Pearl is not allowed to recruit off campus for a year.
Sorry, that's just not harsh enough.
Not when Pearl earns a salary of $1.9 million annually. It isn't like he'll be eating Spam for dinner because of the salary hit. And not when records obtained by ESPN.com show the men's basketball team had already self-reported a number of other NCAA violations, mostly dealing with 100 impermissible calls to different recruits. Pearl himself made five of those calls to one recruit.
The university responded by reducing the number of official visits and shortening the staff's recruiting calendar.
The larger issue here is credibility, both for Pearl and the NCAA. If you're Tennessee, you need to be worried that repeatedly lying to the NCAA came so easily for Pearl. You need to be questioning your head basketball coach's integrity, and wondering how he can mentor young men about their life choices after proving to be such a bad example.
Tennessee apparently may not be able to fire Pearl. Language in his contract protects him from being terminated unless there is an NCAA "finding" that he violated a "significant" rule. That's even though he already admitted that he lied to the NCAA.
According to ESPN basketball analyst Andy Katz, the NCAA likely won't issue its findings on Pearl until sometime next year.
That isn't acceptable.
The NCAA should suspend Pearl from coaching for all of this season. Fair is fair. The NCAA sent the message that it doesn't tolerate deception from athletes by suspending Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant for much of the 2009 football season for lying to investigators. When asked by the NCAA, Bryant denied that he'd visited Deion Sanders' house, that he'd worked out with Sanders and that he'd had any interaction with agents. The NCAA ruled that he lied in his denials about the first two issues, and it didn't take several months to make that ruling and suspend the player.
Why should an exception be made for a coach?
The NCAA lowered the boom on Bryant and it cost him millions in the NFL draft -- probably a lot more than it's costing Pearl right now. And let's not forget that working out and having lunch with Sanders wasn't even an NCAA violation. The NCAA punished Bryant because he lied, not because he was a rule-breaker.
Pearl, though, not only lied to NCAA, but clearly broke an NCAA rule.
Based on those two facts alone, you could argue that Pearl deserves a longer suspension than Bryant.
Bryant lied because he was afraid he might have inadvertently violated an NCAA rule. Pearl knew what he did was wrong and lied to cover his hide.
It's time for the NCAA to stop holding athletes more accountable than it does these handsomely paid coaches.
That is the only way lawlessness in college athletics will be curbed. Recruiting limits, scholarship and even salary reductions don't pose enough of a threat to coaches who break the rules.
Coaches should be subject to suspensions just like the players. And in severe cases, they shouldn't be allowed to coach college players at all.
There is something wrong with a system that holds college kids to a higher standard than grown men.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.