KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl recently opened his fifth season with the University of Tennessee men's basketball program.
In other words, for better or worse, the Volunteers are now his program. Their successes are his successes. Their problems are now his problems.
And this weekend presented Pearl four rather large problems.
Four of his players, including All-Southeastern Conference senior forward Tyler Smith, were arrested Friday morning near campus and charged with myriad misdemeanor drug, weapons and open alcohol container offenses.
The Vols practiced Saturday afternoon in Thompson-Boling Arena without the arrested quartet -- Smith, junior center Brian Williams, junior point guard Melvin Goins and sophomore guard Cameron Tatum -- but Pearl was the only person made available for questions afterward.
Pearl's message? This is his problem, and he will deal with it.
"The people here at the University of Tennessee and the people of the state of Tennessee have given me this basketball program," Pearl said. "Let me run it, and I'll make the right decisions to the very best of my ability."
Pearl politely stated several times that he didn't have enough information from authorities to make final decisions on the players' fates. He said they would probably remain suspended and away from the program until at least early this week, when he hopes to have a better grasp on the situation.
UT has parted ways with several players for simple drug usage in the Pearl era -- something the coach noted several times Saturday -- so a mere lack of felony charges might not spare them. A clean past could help their chances, though, the coach added.
"The suspensions could be for games, and it's possible that there could be a dismissal, depending upon the circumstances," Pearl said. "A lot of it's not just going to depend on this particular outcome; a lot of it's going to depend on the history of the student-athlete, as it relates to his conduct over a period of the last two, three or four years.
"We'll be fair. We'll be firm. We're not going to underreact (sic), and we're not going to overreact."
The arrested players have all been released on bond, according to Knox County Detention Center officials, but none were in Thompson-Boling as the team practiced. Attempts to contact the players Saturday night weren't successful, but Pearl described their feelings as "terribly sorry."
Pearl said he privately apologized to UT men's athletic director Mike Hamilton, legendary Lady Volunteers basketball coach Pat Summitt and the parents of current and future Vols on Friday. He extended similar words to the school's fan base Saturday.
"I'm proud of the guys that are being role models, but when they step out like this, it's difficult," Pearl said. "I'm terribly sorry, and I think the guys are, too. Our team will do everything we possibly can to come together and represent and continue to do good things on the court and off the court to restore our image.
"It's just very difficult. I try to remind these guys they have an opportunity to make their families proud, and they know that when they do things like this, it's devastating for the folks at home."
Pearl declined to say whether the team was preparing to face key out-of-conference opponents Charlotte and top-ranked Kansas with or without the suspended players. He offered just one possibly on-court solution, saying senior wing J.P. Prince and junior walk-on Josh Bone will get looks at back-up point guard, since Goins might be unavailable.
"Right now, today, I want to focus on the other stuff, and not focus on exactly what it's going to do to us on the court," Pearl said. "That's the least of my concerns right now. I am very apologetic. I'm embarrassed. I feel badly for the players that are involved, as well as the other student-athletes at Tennessee, because we're a part of that group, and we've let them down.
"I think the important thing, the thing I really want to stress to our fans, is please don't judge our entire athletic program based on the last couple of things that have taken place with the football program and with our basketball program. I know Coach Kiffin shares my thoughts, and the feeling that, 'Gosh, a vast majority of those guys are doing the right kinds of things.' Certainly, that's the case here, but we're accountable. Mike Hamilton has provided strong leadership for this program. The messages that we've delivered to our student-athletes have been consistent, but we've got to take the hit here and be accountable, and then let this thing run its course. We'll move on to the basketball court, and we'll move on to the next chapters here down the road."
The Vols are scheduled to practice today, but officials said players -- active or suspended -- won't likely be made available to the media.
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