Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tennessee men's basketball program awaits NCAA hammer

The relationship between big-time college athletics and the educational mission of universities has always been a curious one.

When looking from a purely logical point of view, they do not appear to have much in common. While most would agree that sports should play some role on campuses, the news regarding athletics often dwarfs achievements in education.

Of course, we do not live in a purely logical world. Our emotions work in tandem with our logical side to determine what is important. For this reason, sports are very important to many when looking at the overall picture of college life.

For those doubting this, the hoopla regarding the NCAA's notice of allegations against the University of Tennessee's athletic program should have driven this point home. It was big news that dominated statewide media, and that is saying something when considering all that has been going on in the world lately.

As a graduate of the school and supporter of the athletic program, the allegations are embarrassing. The most severe relate to the men's basketball program and Head Coach Bruce Pearl.

The NCAA alleges that Pearl and his staff broke rules, and that Pearl lied to an NCAA investigator about this. The program is also accused of other violations, including issues involving the football team. Breaking rules is bad enough, but lying to the NCAA in an attempt to cover up misdeeds is a remarkable lack of judgment.

As in most cases in life, the cover up is often worse than the original mistake. Because of this, do not expect the NCAA to go easy on the program when penalties are announced later this year.

Penalties could range from a loss of scholarships to a ban on participating in the NCAA tournament for the next year or two. Pearl's mistakes could literally cost the program millions of dollars if the team cannot play in the NCAA tourney next year.

Because of the severity of these issues, many wonder why Pearl still has his job. Most coaches would have been fired if linked to this type of activity. But, so far, Pearl has survived.

Still, Pearl's situation is not as clear cut as it seems. It is important to remember that he did a lot of good for the university in recent years.

When he came here, he took over one of the most underachieving programs in the nation. Almost overnight, he turned the team into a winner. This resulted in good publicity for the school and brought in lots of money. Thompson-Boling Arena went from being a half-empty barn to a packed house for most games.

Do not underestimate the importance of this. There is often a direct connection between a school's athletic success and the amount of donations it receives from alumni.

For example, when Northwestern University's long suffering football team underwent a resurgence in 1995, financial giving to the school went through the roof. For that school, a Big 10 championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl resulted in big bucks.

Up until this scandal, Pearl was wildly popular among University of Tennessee supporters and was considered a goodwill ambassador for the school. Now, this is all in tatters.

The bottom line is Coach Pearl is hanging on by a thread, and one more mistake will send him out the door. To paraphrase an old cliché, his tenure at Tennessee has one foot in the grave and the other foot is on a banana peel.

In many ways, the party is over. However, the possibility of redemption remains. We have all failed at some point, but we have had the luxury of not doing it in a public forum.

Times like these define a person's life. For Pearl, he can either fall into the abyss or commit to getting his career back on track.

Let's hope he chooses well.


Anonymous said...

Tennessee better worry about getting in this years tournament instead of what the NCAA will do next year.

Chris said...

Losing to Kentucky today did not help at all. I think five teams from the SEC will make the NCAA tourney. Florida, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Georgia have already made it in my opinion.

The fifth team with be either Tennessee or Alabama. Alabama beat Tennessee earlier this season in Knoxville. However, the Volunteers have several advantages over the Tide. Their RPI is much higher, and as of last Friday, Tennessee had played the second toughest schedule in the nation.

Tennessee needs to win one or two games in the SEC tourney to make the big tourney.