Greeson: Pearl's fate could hinge on Vols' NCAA fortunes

Greeson: Pearl's fate could hinge on Vols' NCAA fortunes

March 17th, 2011 by Jay Greeson in Sports

The University of Tennessee basketball team loaded the bus and headed to Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday for a first-round NCAA tournament game against Michigan.

Bruce Pearl was aboard and at this moment, he's the coach of the Vols. He has an orange jacket and everything.

That said, if the Vols lose to Michigan or in a second-round matchup most likely against top-seeded Duke, whether Pearl will be around for the next UT basketball game is a bigger mystery than ever this morning.

"We don't know the answer today," UT athletic director Mike Hamilton told The Sports Animal, a Knoxville-based sports talk radio station Wednesday. "We've done a lot of soul searching about the direction of our program and we'll continue to do that and we'll decide after we're out of the NCAA Tournament what direction it is that we're going to go next."

Read that again: "We'll decide after we're out of the NCAA Tournament what direction it is that we're going to go next." Wow.

The on-floor direction of UT under Pearl has been historic. This weekend, Pearl's Vols are making a program-first sixth consecutive NCAA trip. As we all know, Pearl's coaching is not why the UT powers that be are considering a change. Rather, it's the 10 allegations, including an unethical-conduct charge levied against Pearl for lying to NCAA investigators, that have Hamilton discussing Pearl's job status.

OK, I'll bite. How in the name of Ernie Grunfeld does Hamilton think this is the best time to discuss this?

Seriously, whether you think Pearl is a victim of a worldwide NCAA conspiracy that includes 450 different people and a team of PhotoShop specialists or if you believe Pearl should be ranked No. 7 on the state's most wanted list, the timing of this is dreadful. In fact, think of something that's utterly awful, now multiply it by 12 and that's where Hamilton's timing ranks.

Be it directly or indirectly, from now until the Vols put their gear away the topic of every interview, of every pregame conversation, of every post-practice chat will be about Pearl's future.

Earlier this year - and it's just mid-March, mind you - Hamilton said he intended to keep Pearl as his coach unless there were new NCAA infractions revealed. Either a new shoe may be close to falling or Hamilton and UT are hot about reportedly learning from the NCAA about Pearl's now-infamous "bump violation" that happened four days after his tearful mea culpa in September.

"We're not going to finish our evaluation until after the season is over," Hamilton told the radio station. "Let's have that conversation after the season is over."

Great idea. In fact, when the season is completed is the perfect time to have these conversations, Mike.

Not 48 hours before your team's NCAA tournament opener. Not on the eve of a team full of 18- to 22-year old guys facing a media throng wanting to know how it feels to be playing for your coach's job. Not a day before freshman Tobias Harris prepares for his first NCAA appearance, guaranteeing that he'll be asked how much Pearl's future will affect his timetable about entering the NBA draft.

This is less about whether you think Pearl should be fired - that debate will come soon enough - than Hamilton's decision to float it out there now.

Unless, Hamilton - who has long been linked to and viewed as a supporter of Pearl - is trying to distance himself from his embattled basketball coach. And if that's the case, then it's not a giant leap to think barring a long tournament run, the decision to sack Pearl before the NCAA swings its hammer in the next few months already has been made.

In which case, the next evaluation and discussion about job security will be all about Mike Hamilton, and the timing likely will be sooner rather than later.