Wiedmer: UT objective is mitigation

Wiedmer: UT objective is mitigation

June 5th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Nervous yet, Big Orange Nation? Concerned that your day in NCAA court is almost here? Worried about meeting your maker, so to speak?

By this time a week from now, the University of Tennessee brass will have completed its defense of alleged wrongs before the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

The short-term future of the athletic department will be somewhat determined by how that committee views UT's defense of former basketball coach Bruce Pearl and his staff and ex-football coach Lane Kiffin and his staff.

Will the committee agree that since both groups have moved on, that because UT eventually - though belatedly - dismissed Pearl, that because the Volunteers have appeared to gain little competitive advantage by their misdeeds, that justice has largely been served?

Will it merely strip UT's two most high-profile men's programs of a scholarship or two each, place them on three years probation and close this case for good?

Or will it throw its hammer down over the time it took athletic director Mike Hamilton to wash his hands of Pearl and the seeming lack of control the school had over Kiffin during his single season in Volsville?

Will it decide that a lesson must be taught, possibly removing one or both programs from postseason participation during the 2011-12 school year, in addition to other penalties?

Worse yet, will it deliver the dreaded "lack of institutional control" label, a charge that would further call into question Hamilton's long-term future?

Answers to none of these questions will come swiftly. Seven weeks from today is believed to be the shortest period of time Volniacs would have to wait to learn their fate, assuming UT decides not to appeal. A more likely time frame is 8-12 weeks, which could run into the first month of the football season.

So even though the end is near, it's not yet here. This is merely the beginning of the end for the most embarrassing and troubling period in Big Orange men's athletics.

After all, this is the program that routinely has trumpeted itself as playing by the rules. Moreover, it hasn't been shy about turning in others it believed didn't play fair - i.e., former football coach Phillip Fulmer's clandestine actions against Alabama.

That squeaky-clean rep seemed to work in UT's favor during the Linda Benzel-Myers academic scandal and the late 1980s Sport magazine article accusing the Vols of paying players.

And it might again help them here. No serious priors. Hold out your wrist, grimace for the cameras and don't let it happen again.

Or it might work against the Big Orange. Perhaps fire was raging beneath the smoke all along. Maybe the only way to teach UT a lesson is to take away its toys for a while.

But after discussions with a couple of lawyers and a former Infractions Committee member who requested anonymity, here's a possible, plausible scenario:

First, UT won't spend much time discussing the charges of excessive phone calls for either staff or Kiffin's Hostess-gate mischief. The Vols brass will admit that mistakes were made, they were corrected as quickly as possible and every precaution has been taken to see they won't happen again.

As for Pearl's lying, that's already a matter of record. No arguments on that front.

The lone point of heated discussion is likely to center on Pearl's infamous "bump" with a recruit four days after the tearful news conference where he admitted lying to the NCAA.

UT supposedly will argue that the bump never took place or that, at the very worst, it was an accident.

The basketball Vols' 2012 postseason may hinge on whether or not the NCAA backs down, or whether it revisits Pearl's past struggles to tell the truth and proclaims, "Liar, liar, orange blazer on fire!"

Hamilton's bigger problem may become why the school stuck with Pearl after he admitted lying to the NCAA. Much as Ohio State clearly defended football coach Jim Tressel far too long in the wake of Tattoo-gate, UT was almost defiant in its unwillingness to pink-slip Pearl. Especially after the bump charge surfaced in February.

Still, the charges Tressel covered up at OSU were major in nature; the Vols' misdeeds were decidedly minor until Pearl lied about them. Given that fact alone, it's hard to see the NCAA causing long-term damage to the program now that both Pearl and Kiffin are gone.

Beyond that, Hamilton deserves high marks for at least one decision he's made. At this week's hearing will be football coach Derek Dooley and new basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, neither of whom had anything to do with the Vols' current mess.

"I think it's good for them to go," Hamilton told the Knoxville media last week. "I think it's helpful to understand what the process is and understand this is a place you don't want to be."

No, it's not. But it could be worse. Just ask Ohio State.