Wiedmer: Hamilton takes risk in Pearl

Wiedmer: Hamilton takes risk in Pearl

September 16th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

The radio sports talk show host in Mississippi had a question for the sports writer in Chattanooga on Wednesday afternoon.

"Why," he asked, "hasn't the University of Tennessee fired [athletic director] Mike Hamilton yet?'

Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Sep 15, 2010 University of Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton speaks during a meeting of the Rotary Club at the Country Place Restaurant on Shallowford Road on Wednesday.

Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

Understand, this is not necessarily the feeling within the Volunteer state. At least it wasn't during Hamilton's talk to the Hamilton Place Rotary Club its Wednesday lunch meeting at the Country Place restaurant.

The boss of the Vols was roundly cheered, even by club president Alan Johnston, an unabashed Alabama fan who said, "I routinely hear good things about what's going on with the student athletes up there behind the scenes."

But away from Tennessee, where perceptions are formed by sound bites and news flashes scrolling across the botton of a TV screen, the perception is growing that UT is an athletic department gone wild.

What began with Hostess-gate last December picked up steam with the New Year's Day arrest of four Vols basketball players - including star player Tyler Smith - on drug and gun charges.

That was followed by a few minor incidents with the football team during the spring before a bar fight in July involving several football players heightened the angst and anger from many corners.

Then came last Friday, when Hamilton and men's hoops coach Bruce Pearl arrived at a hastily called press conference to discuss Pearl's admission that he had lied to the NCAA regarding possible recruiting violations.

Given that Pearl's outrageous success has been as important to Hamilton's job approval rating as cheese is to mac, this was no insignificant blow to the athletic director.

As the Knoxville News Sentinel's John Adams wrote last weekend, no matter how upset some fans were over Phillip Fulmer's firing as football coach in 2008, or how embarrassed much of the fan base was over Fulmer successor Lane Kiffin, Hamilton could always fall back on Pearl for proof that he knew what he was doing.

And to be fair, Pearl remains an inspired hire. He has taken the program to places it has never previously gone - from selling out cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena, to briefly earning a No. 1 ranking in the winter of 2008, to coming within a single basket of reaching last spring's Final Four.

Given all that, it's little wonder that when Hamilton was asked how his e-mails had run after a teary-eyed Pearl admitted on Friday that he'd lied, the AD replied, "Surprisingly very few e-mails ... I anticipated more, to be frank with you.

"Most of the comments have been, 'Hey, we're sorry this happened, but we believed the university handled it in the right way.'"

And maybe they did on Friday. Hamilton talked about how the NCAA "had initiated a look into telephone activity surrounding our basketball program and a potential of excessive phone calls to recruits."

Hamilton then announced a total of $1.5 million reduction to Pearl's salary over the next five years, similarly severe financial penalties to his staff, and huge reductions in off-campus recruiting time.

Finally, Pearl admitted he'd lied, presumably about the phone calls. Case closed.

But then came Tuesday and word that it was a little more than phone calls. The NCAA had photos of high school juniors visiting Pearl's home during unofficial visits.

Not only did Pearl apparently deny knowledge of where the photos were taken, but so did his staff, which means it wasn't just a brain cramp. It was a conspiracy.

Given the fact that neither the phone calls nor visits to the coach's home were more than secondary violations, one has to wonder why Pearl lied to the NCAA.

Is it not feasible that he's covering up something else? And if he is, at what point must Hamilton say enough is too much?

This is not to say that either Hamilton or Pearl should be terminated at this time. Hamilton has done far more right than wrong, beginning with the fact that he keeps an annual $100 million athletic budget in the black.

But when you call a press conference to infer that this was only about phone calls and four days later it becomes public knowledge that there was much more to it than that you wonder when the term "cover-up" may have a good bit of the UT athletic department running for cover.

As he addressed the Rotary Club, Hamilton said of Pearl's financial penalty: "I think a lot of coaches sat up and went, 'Wow!'"

But with each fresh news leak you begin to wonder if that was a 'Wow,' as in, "Boy, that was tough." Or, "Wow, did Bruce get off easy."

If opinion within this state begins to mirror that outside it, both Hamilton and Pearl could find themselves linked together in the unemployment line.