Last night Tennessee lost to Florida. There’s no shame in that loss, but it crystallized what’s likely to be the third straight season of NCAA futility for Cuonzo Martin’s Vols. Cuonzo’s a nice guy, no one dislikes him, I wish he’d won, but you can’t spell Martin without NIT. It’s time to acknowledge that Cuonzo isn’t getting the job done.
Namely, this is now three straight seasons when Tennessee had NCAA caliber talent and the SEC was awful, and three straight seasons of underwhelming performances ending in the NIT. Next year’s team will be worse, so this isn’t about needing more time for everything to gel. This year represents the peak of Martin’s Vols. And this year is the worst yet, the Vols are 6-5 in a godawful SEC with the best win of the league season being on the road at LSU, a team that doesn’t even crack the top 50 of the RPI.
What’s more, Martin’s teams play a boring, plodding style of basketball that sucks the energy out of Thompson-Boling Arena and doesn’t fit the talent of the team. Look at the body language of this year’s Vol team, does this seem like a group that believes in its coaching staff? Contrast that with the past.
Tennessee needs to rehire Bruce Pearl.
Remember when Pearl would parade his team in through the stands, put on a show, work the sideline like a magician in his orange jacket? Pearl made basketball fun in Knoxville.
And he won.
In his six seasons at Tennessee Pearl took the Vols to number one in the country, went to six straight NCAA tournaments, advancing to three Sweet 16’s, and an Elite 8. He came within a free throw of the Final Four, which would have been a first for the school. Oh, and I did mention that he sold tons of tickets, was more beloved than any coach in the past thirty years at Tennessee, and united the Vol fan base like no coach I’ve ever seen?
As if that wasn’t enough, he still lives in Knoxville, where he’s been serving out his three year NCAA penalty.
Stop right now with your “PEARL CHEATED,” emails and Tweets.
I’m past caring.
Everyone cheats in the NCAA. Every. Single. Team. If you want to be mad at Pearl, be mad at him for lying to the NCAA about something so stupid, whether or not he had juniors over to his house — which is now permissible under the rules — when it would have been a secondary violation if he’d just come clean. In fact, if you really want to be mad, how about being mad at Tennessee’s lawyers for not telling Pearl that the NCAA had a picture of him with Aaron Craft before he went into that NCAA meeting and was blindsided by the picture. Sure, Pearl lied. But coaches lie every day to the NCAA, the difference was Pearl lied and got caught. Then admitted to lying. An admission, by the way, that gained him absolutely no favorable treatment from the NCAA.
I still wonder what would have happened if Pearl had lawyered up and denied he ever did anything improper. I think his punishment would have been less, especially if he’d really fought it aggressively, Miami Hurricane style. By the time the NCAA got around to ruling on him, the organization would have been significantly weakened. If Tennessee had responded to the NCAA like Miami did — fighting tooth and nail for their guys — Pearl would probably still be the coach in Knoxville.
Hell, if Tennessee had just shown cause — like Central Florida did with Donnie Jones and like Louisville did with Clint Hurtt, two men who did far worse than Pearl — the university could have kept him in charge these past three years anyway. We used to think a show cause was a death sentence, now schools just thumb their nose at the most stringent penalty the NCAA has to offer.
And how about Bobby Petrino? He’s back at Louisville after leaving them for the NFL, leaving the NFL mid-season, and getting fired for having an affair with an employee and lying about it at Arkansas. Louisville hired him back just 20 months after he’d been fired by Arkansas. The distance between infamy and fame has never been so thin.
Instead, the story’s familiar now, Pearl was suspended for half the season by the SEC, then fired by Tennessee, after which time he received a three year show cause. For the past three years Bruce Pearl hasn’t coached, even as the NCAA has tumbled down around him. If Bruce Pearl’s not the most overpenalized coach in college history, I’d like to see one that’s more penalized than him.
Hell, Missouri’s Frank Haith helmed a program that bought players and lied to the NCAA investigators about it. His penalty? Five games. Five freaking games! And no one even blinked. Pearl got three and a quarter years for lying about a damn BBQ. A BBQ, by the way, that he didn’t even sign two of the three recruits that were there. He didn’t even gain a competitive benefit from his “cheating.”
Even if you really, strongly feel that Pearl should be penalized, he’s paid his time. That’s why every school in the SEC not named Kentucky or Florida wishes that Pearl was its coach right now. Plus, the SEC needs Bruce Pearl back. Badly. SEC basketball is horrendous. Even if you hated him, at least Pearl was entertaining. With the SEC Network coming next this August, who is going to be demanding the network once football season is over? Pearl made Tennessee a top 15 program.
So why isn’t Pearl to Tennessee an orange-coated slam dunk?
Some will tell you that Tennessee’s administration won’t rehire Bruce Pearl.
I say, so what? Make them rehire Bruce Pearl. Those nimrods work for you. It’s an awful lot harder to find a basketball coach that goes to the NCAA every year than it is to find a chancellor or an AD to work in Knoxville. If they won’t hire Pearl, then in my opinion, they should be fired.
Put it this way, do you trust Tennessee’s administration to hire a better coach than Bruce Pearl? Tennessee’s coaching hire list over the past 25 years is like a bad snuff film — Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Jerry Green, Buzz Peterson, and now Cuonzo Martin. (Insert next failure here). Or hire one of the best coaches in college basketball who already lives in your town and is coming off six straight NCAA tourney trips. It’s an absolute no brainer. Do you want to date a supermodel or take your chances on picking one up at the local dive bar?
We took calls on 3HL, the most listened to sports talk show on the most listened to sports talk station in the country, and said, “Call in if you’re a Tennessee fan and you don’t want Bruce Pearl back at Tennessee next year.” Do you know how many people didn’t want Pearl back?
Not one person. Do you know how hard it is to get complete agreement about any issue on sports talk radio? It’s impossible. Pearl did it. Every single Tennessee fan who isn’t related to Cuonzo Martin or his coaching staff wants Bruce Pearl back at Tennessee.
It’s time, past time even, for Bruce Pearl to be back on the sideline at Tennessee.
It needs to happen.