CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Most things Bruce Pearl says these days must come with a caveat. Fair or not, that’s just how it is.
Was this the last time Bruce Pearl walked off the floor after Tennessee's basketball coach? Maybe.
When you’ve lied in the past, some will never believe you, and many will be skeptical.
But when Bruce Pearl sat down on a stage in Time Warner Cable Arena on Friday afternoon and said he legitimately didn’t know his future, I believed him.
“We’re going to be evaluated, just like (athletic director) Mike Hamilton said, and I’m going to be able to go there and say we went to the NCAA tournament six times and three Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight,” Pearl said. “I think our program is in very solid footing.”
Obviously, it’s not that simple.
The University of Tennessee — including Pearl, regardless of whether he's the coach at that point — is scheduled to go before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in June and defend a series of missteps that brought scrutiny and shame to one of college athletics’ most tradition-rich departments.
Even Pearl does not disagree that the next few months will be “difficult.”
“We made mistakes,” Pearl said. “We're going to try to be accountable for those mistakes, but my goal and desire is to be the basketball coach at Tennessee next year and for a long time.”
But will that happen?
We don’t know. Most of us don’t know, anyway. Maybe some know. But no one admits they know.
Comments last week from Hamilton publicly unveiled what many have privately known for a while.
Pearl is, at the very least, on thin ice.
And that has nothing to do with a 75-45, NCAA tournament loss to Michigan on Friday — the widest margin of defeat during Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee.
“Obviously (this) didn't help that. Didn't help myself in that regard,” Pearl said. “But I hope that the body of work ... I don't think the people at Tennessee are evaluating me based on whether or not we won or lost this game. I think there's a lot more to it than that. And I have great trust and faith in our leadership.
“We have very, very good people in these positions, and I hope they still have great confidence in their coach.”
They surely don’t have great confidence.
But do they have enough confidence to keep a man who is quickly becoming one of college basketball’s most controversial coaches?
Who knows? I don’t. All I know is this isn’t simple. Even before the NCAA sends down sanctions — maybe sometime this fall — there are legitimately well-constructed arguments on both sides.
Pearl is arguably the best men’s basketball coach Tennessee has ever had. Only Ray Mears has even remotely comparable accomplishments. In six seasons, the Vols have been to six NCAA tournaments. And Friday was just the second time they went one-and-done on college basketball’s biggest stage. Rewind one year, and UT’s first trip to the Elite Eight ended one point shy of the Final Four.
Including this season’s 15 losses, the Vols have still lost just 61 games in Pearl’s six seasons. Do the simple math. That’s simply impressive.
“Look at Tennessee basketball without Bruce Pearl. You can’t say much about it,” senior center Brian Williams said. “Before Bruce Pearl, I don’t think anybody ever heard about Tennessee unless you were talking about football. Whatever happens, everybody here’s still going to be successful from this point on. Whatever they decide to do, it’s their loss if they decide to get rid of Coach Pearl. I don’t agree with that.
“If they continue on with Bruce Pearl, they’re going to continue going on to NCAA tournaments.”
The argument would be simple if it was just about matters on the court. But it’s not.
Even great coaches, especially in an era of unparalleled parity, occasionally assemble parts that simply don’t work well together. This happens to Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, widely considered to be one of the best postseason coaches of his generation, went home Thursday with a 0-for-1 tournament effort. Florida’s Billy Donovan won national championships in 2006 and 2007, and he didn’t win another NCAA tournament game until Thursday night — his Gators missed the 2008 and 2009 tournaments and went home last season with a first-round loss.
Everyone occasionally steps in it on the court. Some can withstand that. Pearl, considering what he’s done and where he’s done it, should have as much on-court equity as just about any peer.
But this isn’t about anything on the court.
It’s about a series of off-court missteps that have placed UT in a potentially perilous position.
Even if one assumes that Pearl is the best available on-court leader to bring the Vols back from NCAA sanctions — and that’s not the biggest stretch in sports history; the man can flat-out coach — one must question whether he’s the best person available to lead UT’s basketball program into the future.
Some are naive. I am not. College basketball, behind the scenes, isn’t for the faint of heart. With the power that apparel companies and other manipulative entities wield in amateur basketball, it’s becoming more and more questionable whether anyone can operate 100 percent above board in this era and win at this level.
But the fact is UT’s athletic department, especially its men’s basketball program, must be on the straight and narrow for a while. An administration consistently trying to put out fires has no need to employ anyone who plays with matches.
And can this staff be trusted to do that?
Maybe they can. Maybe they can’t.
It doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what Hamilton thinks. It matters what UT-Knoxville chancellor Jimmy Cheek thinks. Perhaps as much or more than anything, it matters what UT’s deepest-pocketed boosters think.
Here’s a guess: One hundred percent of those people will not agree moving forward.
Here’s a fact: They still have to get this right.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247