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Tennessee's Self-Imposed Two Year Probation: Are We There Yet?

Updated July 23, 11:35 PM - Here's more from KNS and Andrew Gribble:  some of the transcript from the NCAA's original and follow-up questioning of Bruce Pearl and his assistants surrounding the photo of Pearl with Aaron Craft.  This too shows more of not only Pearl's dishonesty, but the stupidity in lying.  They clearly knew about the photo before the questioning began.  And I'll defer to Joel's lawyering skill on this, but UT's lawyer directly asked Pearl if the picture was taken "in your home any place", and Pearl still said no?  They either thought it couldn't be proved, or Pearl really was that stupid on that fateful day.  For what it's worth, the transcripts don't change any of my opinions about the nature of UT's self-imposed penalties, it just goes to further show that Pearl really made some poor choices. 

A possible near-miss on Georgia Tech's athletic director aside, I keep telling myself that we're done digging our ditch around here.  The men with the shovels have all moved on, either by termination, resignation, or a hasty retreat to the West Coast, and in all cases Tennessee fans do or will count it as a blessing.  Feelings remain mixed on Bruce Pearl, but when the final punishment does arrive from on high at the NCAA, it still seems very likely that the length of the coming show-cause will reveal that we truly had no other option; Tony Jones' employment at Alcoa High School could suggest the same for him.

But even the worst possible punishment - postseason bans and scholarship reductions - would be for crimes we are no longer committing.  We've stopped making it worse on ourselves no matter how much the NCAA punishes us for our sins over the last three years.

The question of what Tennessee deserves for those sins is a good one.  It's been twenty years since the Vols were on probation or committed a major violation of any kind.  Now UT has reset its own accident count - the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported yesterday that Tennessee self-imposed a two year probation before the June meeting with the Committee on Infractions.  This is UT's most recent and final attempt to police itself for the crimes committed by its coaches.  On Bruce Pearl and the former basketball staff specifically, the count currently stands as follows:

  • $1.5 million in salary reduction
  • Staff taken off the road in recruiting in staggered amounts, up to one year for Pearl
  • Eight game SEC suspension (via Mike Slive)
  • Eventual termination of the most successful coaching staff in program history
  • Two year probation
  • No off-campus meals for 2011-12 during basketball recruiting visits (read:  no BBQ)

Tennessee's efforts with the NCAA have been to assign most if not all of the blame on Kiffin and Pearl.  The self-imposed penalties only affect Cuonzo Martin in terms of off-campus meals, and only affected Derek Dooley in the loss of six days in the Spring 2011 recruiting period, plus having only 50% of the football staff contact recruits on the first day of the Fall 2011 recruiting period.  They are, in my opinion, minor annoyances for two staffs that were not part of the problem and are trying to be part of the solution.

But two questions remain, and I'm not at all convinced they're the same:  is it fair?  And will it be enough for the NCAA?

From the KNS story by Andrew Gribble, here's the university's official statement to the NCAA as it self-imposed probation:

Outside of a handful of recruiting restrictions placed on the current football staff and a minor restriction placed on the new men’s basketball staff in 2011, the university believed that "the penalties imposed during the course of its investigation, coupled with its corrective measures, adequately address the violations that occurred."

"The University has taken what it believes are meaningful and appropriate steps to address the problems identified in this case," the response reads, "including declaring student-athletes ineligible, implementing enhancements to the compliance program, and self-imposing penalties upon the particular coaching staff members and sports programs that were designed to punish the head coach, deter similar conduct in the future, and offset any advantages that the programs may have gained."

And as it relates to Pearl and his staff specifically:

"Sadly, this became a case of a head coach and his assistants following a somewhat correctable secondary violation with a series of bad decisions," the response reads. "Those decisions put a proud and reputable program in substantial jeopardy and eventually led to the termination of employment of the four coaches, each of whom had a promising future at the University."

When the NCAA hits an institution with a Notice of Allegations, the school has 90 days to provide answers to a number of questions that either agree or disagree with the facts presented. UT’s response was lengthy, as the document, which featured numerous redactions to protect the names of currently enrolled students, nearly totaled 200 pages.

The university considered most of the allegations to be "substantially correct," though it did disagree with the severity attached to a few of the allegations.

It's the redactions that continue to be troubling, including unknown violations by Jason Shay and David Reaves.  So obviously, if there is something substantial underneath that black ink, it's even more difficult to anticipate what the NCAA will do and it's impossible to say what's fair.  (It's also worth noting that the KNS story reveals that the photo of Aaron Craft at Pearl's infamous BBQ was sent anonymously to the NCAA via U.S. Mail with the caption, "Question: Is having Aaron Craft a 2010 high school recruit in your home an NCAA violation? I wonder if the NCAA would think so …")

I'm also a bit curious as to why Tennessee didn't announce this self-imposed probation.  I mean, what did we stand to lose?  Not that our PR savvy has been on display at any point in the last three years or anything, but why exactly were we trying to keep quiet about a continual attempt to police ourselves well?

Will it all be enough for the NCAA?  Will additional punishment fall on Pearl, Kiffin, and their respective staffs, or will the NCAA come back at Tennessee with one or both of the things we thought too harsh and the NCAA thinks most substantial?  Are the Vols truly in danger of scholarship reductions and/or postseason bans?

Or has UT's self-imposed punishment fit the crime already?

Our friends at A Sea of Blue think not:

It is one thing for Bruce Pearl to have inadvertently violated the NCAA prohibition against having recruits over to his barbecue that ultimately lead to his lie to the NCAA investigators.  That would indeed be a secondary violation. 

But the evidence demonstrates that Pearl knew he was breaking the rules, and did so with malice aforethought and a deliberate attempt to gain a recruiting advantage.  That raises any NCAA violation, in my view, to the level of a major violation for which at minimum the failure to monitor charge comes into play. Anytime a head coach shows deliberate contempt for the rules, not just carelessness or inappropriate ignorance, it will boil the NCAA's blood, and should.

In the end, Tennessee will have to surrender scholarships in its basketball program, as almost every major recruiting violator would be expected to.  Regardless of what the UT attorneys say, this cannot be considered by any means a secondary violation, and it is insulting to me that they have tried to couch it as one.  I don't think these attorneys have effectively represented Tennessee, and I expect that the NCAA will be very displeased.

I hope the NCAA does not overreact in this case.  This UT response absolutely invites them, nay, dares them to do so, but I hope they decline the invitation.  What Pearl did was ... indescribably wrong, and at least to the level of Jim Tressel's malfeasance at Ohio State. Pearl has no defense whatever available to him, and at least Tressel has the defense of abject stupidity, even if that seems a major reach given the resources available to him.

I hope I'm wrong, Volunteers, but I think the NCAA is going to demand more.  Maybe much more.

I think seriously getting into the "Oh yeah, well at least we're not as bad as Team X!" game is the wrong approach, whether Team X is Ohio State or Kentucky (which is the natural UT fan response here), because in that game all parties are still guilty (recently in Ohio State's case, historically in UK's case).

(I think getting into it in jest, however, is always fun, so I'll just point you to my favorite metaphor for teams coached by John Calipari:  memorable, entertaining, but still looks and sounds like what it's ultimately been at UMass and Memphis, and still quite destructive even if you're not holding it when it goes off.  In jest, remember.  You shouldn't take anything from that movie seriously.)

I don't know if we should take Glenn's view that Pearl doesn't have abject stupidity as a defense as a compliment or an insult.  I still don't look at Pearl as primarily a cheater - I see him more as someone who was dishonest and then was incredibly stupid about who he was dishonest to.  Of course, I'm wearing my UT fan glasses; UK fans are probably more apt to see him differently, the same way we see Calipari differently.

As someone who truly hopes Calipari stays at Kentucky a long time, I do appreciate and echo Glenn's sentiments about not wishing harm on your rivals via the NCAA hammer; I do hope the fuse has been cut on any improper action associated with a Calipari program for the same reasons he mentions:  beating your rival when they're on probation is not nearly as fun.  UT fans will remember having much more fun beating Alabama when they were good than an Alabama handcuffed by sanctions.  I remain a firm believer that the best rivalries involve the success of both parties overall - I cheer for Alabama every single week before the Third Saturday in October, because it will mean more.  And I'm glad Kentucky is back to being Kentucky, and that they want Tennessee to be the Tennessee it's been for the last six years in basketball.  (As such, UT fans, please keep this good nature in mind if you head over to ASOB to comment.)

But is Tennessee, with their overall self-imposed response, really daring the NCAA to respond with an overreaction penalty because they were far too soft with their own?

Has Tennessee done anything to deserve a postseason ban?  Absolutely not.  Kiffin's sins belong to Kiffin, and the Vols can and have shown evidence of the steps they took to control him under David Blackburn.  Pearl's violations (not the lying to investigators, the violations themselves) should be considered secondary, and in my mind that includes the bump - there's not a coach in the country who wants to see a bump violation considered a major infraction, and Tennessee will argue it was a chance situation that was a true case of unfortunate timing and, again, more stupidity on Pearl's part not to at least mention it given the circumstances.  But a bump violation is ultimately harmless and always secondary.  Postseason bans should be reserved for programs that are habitual line-steppers, gaining competitive advantages for their sins.  None of those things can be said about Tennessee, and none of the people involved with the violations are still on campus.  The coaches and the athletic director who oversaw the violations are guilty.  Cuonzo Martin, Derek Dooley, and the current Vols deserve the chance to play for championships.

Has Tennessee done anything to deserve scholarship reductions?  Maybe.  Will the basketball program get hit with scholarship reductions?  Probably.  As such, should Tennessee have included that in its self-imposed penalties?

Like anyone who has pleaded guilty, UT is arguing that the punishment fit the crime, and in this case that the crime was committed by individuals who should receive harsher punishment than the institution.  It's tough, however, to lay 100% of the blame on Kiffin and Pearl but then say UT shouldn't receive a failure to monitor and/or lack of institutional control charge.

Still, the university can show tangible steps on monitoring and controlling Lane Kiffin, removed the other responsible parties from the equation, punished itself, placed itself on probation, and handed out minor penalties to the new coaching staffs.  I'm all for Tennessee defending itself based on what it believes to be a true and fair representation of the facts; I support the university doing what it believes to be right over what it believes will appease the NCAA.  And I don't think the way we've done it is baiting the NCAA into dropping an even bigger hammer on us.  There is clearly guilt here - the Vols are simply asking that it be rightfully assigned.

More than anything else, I'd just like to get on with it.  A postseason ban would be a crushing blow in either sport, but I simply do not, at all, believe that punishment fits any of our crimes.  Scholarship reductions are more likely and may be coming, but the university is always going to be at least somewhat responsible for the actions of its employees, and if the NCAA goes in that direction, so be it.  And I think Bruce Pearl is going to get show-caused in a big way, which will put to bed any thoughts we have left that keeping him was ever a real option.

Six weeks from today, football comes to Knoxville.  And when it does, I'd very much like to be past all of this.  We've put down our shovels and said goodbye to those who were digging.  We're waiting to find out exactly how deep this ditch has become.  And we've traded our diggers for men with ladders, who will do things the right way.

It's time to start climbing.

Go Vols.