Commentary by Mark Wiedmer
KNOXVILLE - Having just watched his team lose its seventh home game of the season to mediocre Mississippi State on Saturday evening, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl decided he'd finally discovered his team's biggest weakness.
"We have competitors," he said. "We have no leaders."
The coach suspended for eight games by his own conference for committing NCAA recruiting violations has decided his team has no leaders? The coach who not only lied to the NCAA about those violations, but also asked underclass recruits and their parents to lie for him has surmised his team has no leaders?
How could that be?
"It's disappointing [to hear that]," said UT senior point guard Melvin Goins, who scored nine points, handed out five assists and committed only one turnover in 32 minutes of action in this 70-69 loss. "I never expected it to be like that."
No one's known what to expect from these Volunteers ever since they followed up neutral-site victories over Villanova and Pittsburgh with home losses to Oakland, Southern Cal and the College of Charleston.
UT runs around in circles more than a dog chasing its tail. That has resulted in a 7-7 SEC mark and 17-12 overall record. It has the Big Orange inching toward the dreaded NCAA tourney bubble, if it's not already firmly on it.
And judging by at least a portion of the UT fan base, it has the Big Orange Nation increasingly divided over what the UT administration should do about its rules-breaking coach.
"In most situations I believe the greater powers would have already fired him," said 62-year-old Paul Luallen, a longtime Vols season ticket holder. "But I think they were afraid they couldn't find anyone to replace him who could achieve what Bruce has. I think we'll recover from this, but it's probably going to take a couple of years."
Luallen wouldn't say whether he felt Pearl should be fired, but he did say, "What bothers me most is his pathology of lying. It seems like everything he's said [about the NCAA stuff] was a lie.
"They call a press conference to say how sorry he is, then four days later he apparently breaks another rule. That press conference was like a great card trick."
Curtis Mingle, 55, is equally uncomfortable with Pearl's problems after the NCAA allegations were released on Wednesday.
"I have a bad feeling about what the NCAA is going to do," he said.
Asked if he felt Pearl was being mistreated, Mingle said, "No, I think it's fair. He broke the rules."
UT athletic director Mike Hamilton insists the majority of UT fans are still firmly in Pearl's corner.
"Most of what I've heard is still very positive regarding Bruce," Hamilton said. "I think for a lot of people there's some relief in knowing what the allegations are now rather than just speculation."
There's even some bitterness at the Southeastern Conference for suspending Pearl before the NCAA makes its final ruling.
"If the league had waited," said Mick McGwire, who drove all the way from Fairfield, Ill., to watch the State loss, "it wouldn't have put this year in such disarray. I just think it's been such a distraction to the team."
Most of the team has maintained through the eight league games Pearl didn't coach and the six he has that using their coach's problems for an excuse was just that - an excuse.
But late Saturday evening, Pearl's words about leadership perhaps stinging him more than he expected, Goins said of the NCAA mess, "Yeah, it's a headache. It's always around. You try not to pay attention to it, but it's there."
Always around. Always there. Unlike the Vols' ultimate leader, whose wreckless behavior forced him to miss half his team's SEC games, then boldly proclaim there are no leaders among his players.
Funny, but doesn't leadership usually begin at the top?
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.