HOOVER, Ala. - Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl is lucky that Lady Vols counterpart Pat Summitt isn't also the school's athletic director.

Currently embroiled in an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations, Pearl has had his salary cut and been removed from off-campus recruiting.

But as Summitt took her turn in front of reporters for the Southeastern Conference's basketball media day Thursday, she left no doubt which direction UT should go if she ever were guilty of recruiting wrongs.

"I've never compromised at all, and I wouldn't," said Summitt, who has won eight national championships and graduated almost every one of her players. "If I ever did [break rules], they should fire me."

Summitt also was quick to suggest that she was not requesting a similar fate for Pearl.

"This is a difficult time for all of us," she said. "But I'm going to support Bruce. We all make mistakes."

We all make mistakes. All of us. And that line of defense has been the UT party line since these allegations of improper contacts with recruits first surfaced against Pearl in early September.

But Summitt may have inadvertently changed the dialogue with Thursday's quote. When the ultimate role model of your athletic department - if not all of college athletics - says she should be fired if she ever knowingly breaks a rule, everyone else employed by the Big Orange suddenly is on the very big defensive.

"It's definitely an emotional time," said junior guard Scotty Hopson, Pearl' s best returning player. "He's not just our coach, but a father figure. When he shed tears, that hurt us."

The tears came at the hastily called Friday afternoon news conference to announce that Pearl's salary would be lightened by $1.5 million over five years and that he'd be kept off the road for most of the next year.

What UT athletic director Mike Hamilton glossed over that day was that Pearl would be allowed to remain on the road for much of the September recruiting period to help lock down this November's recruiting haul.

Perhaps because of that, a certain cynicism seemed to envelop Thursday's interview session with Pearl, to the point that he finally told one writer, "Go back and read the transcript, watch the video," when asked why he cried at the news conference.

You can read too much into this. Summitt almost certainly will say at some point that she never meant to imply that Pearl should be fired. Pearl long has worn his emotions on his sleeve, so shedding tears may well come naturally to him.

But another line of questioning should concern Volniacs more. On more than one occasion Thursday, Hopson talked of the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA findings and Pearl's future with the Big Orange.

"I think it' s crossed our minds," said Hopson, when asked if he was worried that Pearl might be fired. "We were worried. Didn't know what to expect."

And when 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds don't know what to expect, the fan base can expect the unexpected, which is often a bad thing.

"I'm sure Bruce will have to deal with the challenge of keeping his guys focused," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators are the preseason pick to win the league. "But we' re all dealing with something."

Pearl' s way to deal with it before the SEC's media was to cite his accomplishments, including three SEC East titles in five years, last year's Elite Eight run - the first in program history - and finishing in the top four in NCAA attendance for a fourth straight year.

"When I got here, Thompson-Boling Arena was showing its age and there were a lot of empty orange seats," Pearl said. "Now we've got one of the best facilities in college basketball."

On the court, the Vols clearly have one of the game's best coaches. But when someone asked Hopson if he thought his coach might be gone before the season ended, the player said, "I don' t know."

With the release of the NCAA's possible sanctions at least six weeks away, no one knows with any certainty how this will play out.

But we all now know where the most revered figure in UT athletics stands on breaking NCAA rules, and it would be a very big mistake to dismiss the impact that could have on her male counterpart's future in Big Orange Country.