Tennessee, Bruce Pearl Embrace the Convenient Truth
Truth went three and out at Tennessee.
Friday, head coach Bruce Pearl spent the weepiest half hour you'll ever see on television without turning on Oprah, explaining that he lied to NCAA, except, of course, all involved were careful to use euphemisms like "misled" or "provided false information." (Y'know, the words you might find in the dictionary entry for lying.) Pearl swore he'd learned his lesson and plaintively mea culpa'd from the dais, which, if we followed the apologies correctly, we believe was made from the chopped cherry tree he's let George Washington take the rap for all these years.
Bruce Pearl cannot tell a lie. Um, again.
"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 summarized in a neat sort of sentence that might wrap up a kid's book report.
"What we did was wrong," he would say. "What we should've done is not only tell the truth, but be forthcoming and self-report some things. That was a mistake."
All that honesty wasn't worth a box of Kleenex.
Rather, according to reports Monday, the NCAA had a photo which it was aware showed Pearl breaking a recruiting rule, confronted him with it, and somehow the kid with crumbs on his chin decided to blame the missing cookies on the dog.
That picture was worth a thousand words. For Tennessee, everyone one of them was of the four-letter variety.
And all that truth talk went out the window.
Pearl claimed Friday he came clean because "that's not who I am," because guilt got the best of him. That, too, was obviously a lie, or at least not the entire picture. Confronted by the fact the NCAA had evidence of a recruiting violation, Pearl came clean because he's too smart and too much of a self-preservationist.
This was not Macbeth wrestling with his conscious. It was Mr. Magoo reading the biggest letter on the eye chart.
Everything else about the grand Tennessee show of contrition is a lie. Or false information. Or misleading.
Heck, athletic director Mike Hamilton's seat was barely warm before the first lie Friday.
"Bruce made one mistake in this incident, and he came forward to correct it," Hamilton said.
Would that be the excessive phone calls? Would that be the "misstep in judgment" of lying to the NCAA? Would that be the three weeks it took to realize lying to NCAA investigators is the wrong thing to do? Or would it be, as we know now, the time he hosted junior recruits on an unofficial visit in his home, and somehow let someone take a photograph of it?
(Frankly, if the NCAA really wanted to do us a service, they'd figure out how in the age of iPhones, Facebook, and YouTube, where Big Brother is always watching when not busy tweeting his tail off, you let such a thing get photographed. Or maybe they just don't get Deadspin in Knoxville?)
Instead of coming forward Friday at the press conference and admitting there were issues beyond the antiseptically phrased "telephone situation," Tennessee did the exact same thing that Pearl did while proclaiming its strict adherence to things like leadership and the NCAA example. They gave just enough truth and conveniently forgot the rest.
Business as usual.
If the point of the whole act of contrition is to "be an example for the NCAA" like Pearl said, then he's already failed. Tennessee didn't come clean. Rather, it ran the exact same hear-no-evil, see-no-evil play that college coaches have been running since Naismith hung the first peach basket.
All these half-truths are likely the advice of the outside counsel the Volunteers hired to help with the investigation. The clinical language reeks of legal strategy, as does Tennessee's refusal to acknowledge any bit of information it doesn't know the NCAA is already aware of.
(And as far as blaming the lengthy rule book, the unofficial visit rules are not ones of forgettable minutia, like the Jim Larranaga bagel spread issue, or accidentally giving a kid a free t-shirt. If the rule seems arbitrary -- if the photo were of the player as a senior on an official visit, it would've been fine -- it is. But so is sports. Sports themselves are nothing but games played to an arbitrary set of rules. The football field isn't 100 yards just because Tim Tebow decreed it so in Exodus.)
Legally, Tennessee is probably being smart. Above all, Hamilton and Pearl aren't getting paid handsomely to be truth tellers, they're paid to be executive officers of a multi-million dollar athletic program. They should care about being a leader, and setting examples as Pearl said, but when the stakes are as high as they are in big-time college athletics, priorities have a way of getting changed.
And Bruce Pearl wins a whole lot of games. That's an asset worth protecting.
Frankly, I don't yet mind that Pearl kept his job despite lying to the NCAA investigators, depending on how extensive the "telephone situation" and other violations prove to be. Pearl genuinely seems to be one of the good guys and his enthusiasm for his players and the advancement of the college game is a nice antidote against a jaded everybody-cheats landscape.
Pearl didn't pay a recruit, he didn't hit anybody, he isn't charged with a crime, he didn't fix a grade. He exercised bad judgment, not pathologically unscrupulous judgment and weighed against the balance of a thus-far spotless career, Pearl deserves a second chance. Heck, USC broke basic amateurism rules with the same runner twice in the same decade and didn't get as heavy a recruiting sanction as Pearl did (The Trojans did have a postseason ban, but had no hope of making the NCAA tournament anyway). Kelvin Sampson single-handedly kept AT&T in business with impermissible phone calls at Oklahoma and skipped gleefully on to Indiana (with a similar one-year ban from off-campus recruiting). Combined with the loss of $1.5 to $2 million over the next five years and being stuck on desk duty during recruiting season, Pearl has been sufficiently punished, for the moment.
But Tennessee, if you're going to come clean, do it. Tell us it isn't just the excessive phone calls but other recruiting matters that you may "have some level of exposure to."
Don't sit on the dais and pat yourselves on the back and tell us about being proactive, when all along it's just another heart-warming moment of self-interest in college basketball.
After all, If there's one thing everyone should've learned in this fiasco, it's that you're either telling the truth or you're not.