KNOXVILLE — Men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl has been a proud, shining light helping many University of Tennessee fans overcome a dark stretch in the Volunteers’ traditionally stout football history.
That had to make Friday’s news even tougher to take.
An emotional Pearl sat in one of Neyland Stadium’s press centers and admitted he “provided incorrect and misleading information to the NCAA,” which sent an official letter of inquiry to UT on Friday that formalized an investigation into the entire athletic department.
“I hold the University of Tennessee, its students and the faculty, staff and our fans in the highest regard and the highest esteem,” a tearful Pearl said. “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be the basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. I’ve made some serious mistakes, and for that I’m truly sorry.
“I do apologize from the bottom of my heart that I let everybody down. I let my family down. I let the university down. I let our fans down. And the guys in that room, I let my players down.
“I have a responsibility to lead by example, and I should expect more from myself. And so should you.”
Pearl sat on stage next to men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton and campus chancellor Jimmy Cheek. The trio discussed the NCAA’s letter of inquiry in front of an audience that included Pearl’s players and women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.
“This letter serves as a first step toward bringing this matter to a conclusion,” Hamilton said. “We have been notified that the investigation is substantially complete unless other matters of substance come to light.”
Pearl’s program has been probed for at least 17 months — before the football issues arose — and Pearl corrected himself for providing “misinformation” during “one very small segment” of questioning about telephone contact with recruits, according to Hamilton.
None of the men on stage disclosed the reason for Pearl’s misinformation, or what specific NCAA question prompted it.
Pearl said honesty from the beginning would have made the penalties “considerably less.”
“I want to stress that the NCAA considers our obligation to tell the truth and cooperate with them very high on their priority list, and it’s one of our highest responsibilities as well,” Cheek said. “As leaders on campus, we have the responsibility to abide by rules and set examples for others, especially our students.
“I hold our faculty, our staff, our students, our athletic directors, our coaches and our administrators to a high standard of conduct. When they don’t meet those standards, appropriate actions and penalties will follow.”
The UT football program has been under an NCAA probe for several alleged recruiting violations during Lane Kiffin’s tumultuous one-year tenure at the school.
“We’re going to get through this as an institution,” Hamilton said.
Pearl’s salary, and those of his assistants, has been sliced 25 percent. For Pearl, that’s a total of $1.5 million in the next five years.
Additionally, Pearl and assistant coach Steve Forbes won’t be allowed to recruit off campus for a full year, starting Sept. 24. Associate head coach Tony Jones won’t be allowed to recruit off campus for six months, and assistant Jason Shay won’t be allowed to recruit off campus for three months.
Pearl and his staff were required to attend an NCAA Regional Rules Seminar in June 2010, shortly following Pearl’s admission to Hamilton that he provided the misinformation. The staff also wasn’t allowed to make recruiting phone calls Aug. 7-14.
The number of basketball official visitors for the 2010-11 recruiting calendar was trimmed from 12 to nine, and off-campus recruiting opportunities were dropped from 130 to 104 for the same period.
No basketball official visitors will be allowed on campus for the weekends of Sept. 17-18 and Sept. 24-25, either. The football team hosts Florida and UAB those weekends.
“Coach Pearl is an important part of the Tennessee family, but he has made some very serious mistakes,” said Cheek, who along with Hamilton approved the self-imposed penalties. “Bruce is our coach. We value the great work he has done on the court and off the court. I have confidence he will do the right things in the future.
“We stand with him and his family at this point in time.”
Those penalties were severe, but the NCAA could ultimately add to them. The letter of inquiry stated “the present intention of the enforcement staff [is] to complete this investigation by December 2010.”
“People make mistakes,” Hamilton said. “And we all make them.”
Several sources close to the UT football program have said they don’t expect severe penalties from the NCAA in that area unless new details emerge aside from the six secondary violations uncovered during the Kiffin era.
Hamilton seemed confident Friday that nothing new would surface for the football program.
“While we await final confirmation of details, it would be fair to say the issues reviewed relating to football have already been addressed in the media over the last 12 months, and we do not expect a great deal of [new] information related to football,” he said.
First-year UT football coach Derek Dooley wasn’t at Friday’s news conference but issued a statement through the school’s sports information department.
“The receipt of this letter represents the next step toward the conclusion of this process,” Dooley’s statement said. “We have high standards in all aspects of the Tennessee football program, and we are steadfast in operating this program with an unwavering commitment to compliance with NCAA rules.
“We look forward to the resolution of this situation and the opportunity to put this matter behind us.”
Pearl has similar goals.
“We are not going to allow these sanctions to prevent our program from being competitive,” Pearl said. “I love the University of Tennessee. I want to coach here for the rest of my life. I’ve put my heart and my soul into this program, and I will not let you down like this again.”
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