KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They played music and shot some fire into the air, and then Tennessee's public address announcer, Jeff Jarnigan, introduced the starting lineup. First the players, then the coaches -- assistants Jason Shay and Steve Forbes ... and associate head coach Tony Jones.
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That's what the crowd chanted.
It was loud and timed perfectly and the latest bit of evidence that the locals still want Bruce Pearl to be their basketball coach despite A) the admitted rules violations, B) the lying to the NCAA and, C) the fact that he's currently serving an eight-game suspension for violating rules and lying to the NCAA. Their affection is clear and undeniable. They like Pearl, regardless.
"Love him," Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton told me. "Bruce is revered in this community."
Which is why I've come to the following conclusion: UT should keep BP.
That's what I decided during Florida's 81-75 overtime victory against the Vols at Thompson-Boling Arena late Tuesday, and I didn't decide it because I think Pearl has been wronged or railroaded or unfairly labeled.
He cheated. He got caught. Then he lied about it and, in my opinion, only came clean when he knew there was no way to cover it up. He's everything his detractors say.
But he's also tremendous at being the head coach of Tennessee's men's basketball team, and that's why Tennessee would be wise to keep him if it's at all feasible.
Don't do it to help Pearl.
Do it because it's best for the long-term future of the program.
|Bruce Pearl is like a relative gone astray in Knoxville. It would be best for the Volunteers to stick together with family. (US Presswire)|
You got all that?
Now let me ask: Wouldn't Tennessee still be better off keeping Pearl?
The alternative would be to fire Pearl before the start of next season and conduct a coaching search at a tough time of the year that would result in Tennessee hiring somebody most Tennessee fans have never heard of, and, yes, that's exactly what would happen. Remember, Arizona had trouble hiring a coach in March two years ago. Memphis, too. So Tennessee fans shouldn't trick themselves into thinking they could go grab Butler's Brad Stevens or some other "name" coach. It just wouldn't work that way. The school would have to overpay for an unproven commodity willing to inherit a mess. That's the truth.
How bad is that scenario?
Answer: Worse than keeping Pearl despite a one-year suspension.
If the choice Tennessee faces is entering the 2012-13 season with a second-year unproven coach or with Pearl coming off a one-year suspension, the smart move would be to let next season come and go with Jones coaching in an interim role, and then get back to normal in 2012-13 with Pearl in charge.
When weighing two less-than-ideal situations, take the better of the two. That's my theory.
And though there's nothing great about possibly playing all of next season without Pearl, it would be better for the program's future to do that than it would be to hire a new coach who would almost certainly struggle to match Pearl's success if only because Pearl's success at UT (five consecutive NCAA tournaments, three Sweet 16s, etc.) is unprecedented.
The downside would be a public relations hit.
But, let's be honest, that hit has already been delivered.
And, let's be even more honest, most fans don't really care.
Kentucky took a PR hit when it hired John Calipari and his baggage (both real and perceived), but I don't know many UK fans who are bothered by it. Louisville took a PR hit when it kept Rick Pitino after that scandal last year, but most Louisville fans would rather have Pitino than not.
I'm not saying it's right or wrong. I'm just saying it's so, and that Kentucky and Louisville are better off as basketball programs with Calipari and Pitino than they would otherwise be.
And I'm saying the same thing here -- the Vols are better long term in Pearl's stained hands than in somebody else's clean ones.
So I would keep Pearl -- not because I think he's paid enough of a price or because I think he deserves a second chance, but because it's the best "basketball" move that can be made.
Granted, I would have to reconsider my options if the NCAA did something really drastic and suspended Pearl from coaching for two or three or even five years, but anything short of that and I wouldn't blink. I would tell Pearl to rest up, do some TV work and be ready to take back over ASAP.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Jones said after losing Tuesday, and he was talking specifically about this season.
But couldn't the same thing be said about Tennessee's future in general? If so, the school would be wise to run that marathon with Pearl, because UT will be better off in five years with him than it would be without him, public relations hit be damned.