|Mark Emmert sends a message that he will get tough on rule-breakers. (Getty Images)|
Mark Emmert, here, take some credibility. Same goes to you, Committee on Infractions chairman Dennis Thomas.
Both men have taken a lot of hits recently for their sloppy way of dealing with the media, as well as their inconsistent, questionable legislation in punishing Georgia Tech's and LSU's football programs with transparent wrist-slaps. Vacated seasons long gone by and one-year probations do not implore most to sling a salute at the NCAA.
But to their credit, both men increasingly and intently said they'd handle serious violators and liars by imposing longer punishments with harsher terms. It's a point Emmert's had to repeat again and again thanks to the myriad rule-breakers who've been caught in 2011, ever exposing the unworkable long-term conundrum that is collegiate athletics not-so-transparently cloaked by the label of amateurism.
Nine and a half weeks after Bruce Pearl pleaded his case one final time to the NCAA, his three-year show-cause is proof, the first proof, of Emmert's mission statement, the principle by which his term as president of the NCAA could be one day remembered for. Forget Georgia Tech, LSU and any other minor punishment pushed upon other problematic programs. Pearl's sentence is the inaugural major verdict to come from the COI since Emmert started his term as NCAA president last summer, when he made it a point to focus the early parts of his tenure on strict punishments for wrongdoers.
This is only the beginning of what will be a telling stretch of NCAA infractions verdicts. Is it an omen? I think it could be. We can see the signal in the sky from the lord on the hill. The egotistic minions running their lives and their programs (often times one in the same) below can spot the first sign that the boss means business. The best part: it's a decision made without the influence of university presidents. In that regard, Emmert comes off looking strong, and appropriately truthful. A man of his word -- the exact opposite of Pearl, the man he's punishing more than anyone formerly affiliated with the University of Tennessee.
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The critical thing to take away from Wednesday's ruling is that Pearl essentially can't coach college kids for three years. The punishment could turn into something longer than that. If he's that far away from the game for that long, will he ever coach at the major-conference level again? Pearl has options right now, and who knows where they will lead him. Will he do TV? Coach in the D-League and chute toward the NBA? No matter where he goes, he can't escape the guilt and sense of punishment and shame that have stuck to him for nearly a year now and will continue follow him into the future, perhaps for the rest of his career. Pearl basked in being a major college basketball coach. He was the most affable mainstream man in the sport. Tennessee was his greatest accomplishment and he reveled in his power position after toiling so long at lower levels of basketball. The COI stripped him of that status and lifestyle. It did its job correctly. It hit him in a big way. It sent a message that is being heard as loudly as an at-their-peak Metallica record right about now: you lie, you die. At least for a good while, then see if your career can resurrect itself.
Pearl already faced punishment from his own commissioner -- an unprecedented eight-game SEC suspension last year -- as well as a $1.5 million pay cut. Last season, Tennessee decided it wouldn't let Pearl recruit away from campus for a year. Then he got fired essentially the minute after he walked off the podium after his team put up the worst performance in his tenure, a 75-45 second-round loss to Michigan in the NCAAs.
All that red tape came before the NCAA made its move, and Pearl's still persona non grata for the next three years. Not. Messing. Around.
And it's not just Pearl, who was fired on March 21, who's felt the mutated strong paws and sharp claws of the NCAA. His former assistants, Steve Forbes, Jason Shay and Tony Jones, all have to stay away from the D-I game for a year. "Former" attached to every convicted bandit of the system.
And it's there I spot another refreshing aspect of the NCAA's ruling. Pearl, his assistants, Tennessee's former football coaches -- they all carry the stink. But the University of Tennessee? It's sitting pretty, all things considered. It received no further sanctions from the NCAA since it self-imposed ones a few months ago. Tennessee smacked itself with a two-year probation before the football and basketball programs went in front of the COI in June. That had real staying power for the NCAA. That, along with other fringe restrictions, saved Tennessee hoops and its new head coach, Cuonzo Martin, from further imprisonment.
Look at the football program, too. Lane Kiffin is long gone, never invited to return to the state, and Vols football will also face no further punishment. (It self-reported and also put itself on two years' probation. Former (there it is again!) athletic director Mike Hamilton fell on the sword hours before that June 11 meeting with the COI. The NCAA is reasonable on two ends here. It's giving the public and the media what it wants -- punishing the outlaws -- while not coming down against the innocent, the employees and players of the programs who had nothing to do with previous transgressions.
Cuonzo Martin didn't cheat at Tennessee. He didn't lie about having Aaron Craft or any other player over to his house. Don't hurt him or his staff for things that happened when Tennessee's job opening wasn't even born within a brain cell of anyone on this earth. Going forward, what does this mean for Ohio State, Miami and others? It should mean the NCAA will smother the offenders and not punish the institutions that purge themselves of the liars and cheats. And that's exactly how it should be. All things considered, death penalties or heavy restrictions on programs that no longer affiliate themselves with their convicted former employees doesn't seem likely.
We have a few more punishments to be handed out (that we can see on the horizon; any other programs want to get caught in the coming weeks?) which will solidify how serious the NCAA is about rule-breakers. As of now, it looks like, for the first time in a long time, the NCAA is getting the process right.
And, Bruce Pearl, once and for all: was it ever worth this? A million times no.