Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl yells to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri State in Knoxville. Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive has suspended Pearl for the Volunteers' first eight conference games as punishment for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators. (AP File Photo/Wade Payne, File)
KNOXVILLE — Final judgment from the NCAA’s investigation into the Tennessee men’s basketball program hasn’t arrived, but the Volunteers already are battered and bruised.
The Southeastern Conference on Friday took the unprecedented step of suspending UT coach Bruce Pearl for eight league games this season. That’s half of the SEC’s regular-season schedule.
“I thought a lot about the entire matter in terms of what we knew and what the established facts were in this case and thought about the nature of the violation and the nature of the conduct, and it really had to do with our conference process,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said.
“In the final analysis, I determined that there may well have been enough to suspend Coach Pearl for the entire conference season. But the fact that he owned up to what he had done, owned up to the underlying violations, I felt that half of the conference season was an appropriate penalty.”
Associate head coach Tony Jones will serve as de facto head coach the Vols’ first eight SEC games — though his title won’t change — and assistants Steve Forbes and Jason Shay will help him on the bench.
Pearl still can prepare the team in practice, but he must leave the arena two hours before tipoff and can’t return until an hour after the final whistle.
“The suspension is, as I understand it, really involves not only eight games, but just eight days,” Pearl said. “I’ll be able to coach the team, prepare the team, but not be able to coach in those particular games, so I’ll still be involved in the preparation and the game plan and my assistant coaches and the players will execute it.”
Chancellor Jimmy Cheek continued to give Pearl his support. He patted the coach on the back and whispered something to him as he exited the news conference.
“Coach Pearl is our coach, and he’s going to be our coach for many, many years,” Cheek said. “We’re going to get through this adversity, and we are going to be stronger as a consequence of it.”
Slive initially approached UT men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton in late September and told him he was considering additional penalties to those the university handed Pearl earlier in the month.
UT took $1.5 million out of Pearl’s contract over its remaining five-year period. That voided the contract, but the coach is working under a letter of appointment until a new deal is reached — which, according to both parties, is close to happening. UT also financially penalized Pearl’s assistants and banned all of them from recruiting off campus for anywhere from three months to a full year.
Slive thought more penalties were needed, and the NCAA ultimately could add more sometime in the next few months, after it wraps up its investigation into Pearl’s myriad violations — including excessive contact with recruits in person and on the phone, as well as misleading NCAA investigators until ultimately coming clean.
“We talked with [Slive] about what we did,” Cheek said. “We presented him a letter saying that we thought we took substantial action, and that our action was appropriate, and we asked that he not take additional action. He saw it differently.
“We’re disappointed that he decided to do that, but we understand he has the authority and we’re moving forward with those penalties.”
Hamilton said UT won’t formally fight Slive’s ruling.
“We actually felt like we had had significant penalties that we had levied, and we asked for that to be the case,” Hamilton said. “There had been some conversations happen, but there was not a formal appeal.”
The athletic director remained hopeful — but couldn’t guarantee — that the NCAA won’t add to the penalties.
“I don’t think we can speak for the NCAA, but the reason we advanced and did the things we did in September had somewhat to do with that,” Hamilton said. “And we believe [Slive] obviously is very well respected in the NCAA, and his decision to impose penalties as well, I’m hopeful ... that that will have an impact on the ultimate decisions.”
Pearl’s suspension doesn’t include nonconference games, so he’ll be on the bench for UT’s NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal against Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He’ll also coach Friday night’s NIT championship or consolation game, and the Vols’ next nine games.
He’ll then miss eight of UT’s next nine games, starting with a Jan. 8 game at Arkansas and finishing with a Feb. 5 home game against Alabama. The one exception before the Vols’ Feb. 8 game at Kentucky — Pearl’s SEC return — will be their Jan. 22 game at Connecticut.
Pearl said he wasn’t “blind-sided” or “caught off guard” by Slive’s decision.
“I have great respect for Commissioner Slive, and he’s got experience in these matters,” Pearl said. “He was chairman of the appeals committee on infractions. He’s seen these cases, and he’s had to sit in judgment, and so therefore as the commissioner of the SEC, he’s in a position to now do so.
“I think that these penalties are directed at me, and they are directed at me based on the things that I have done, and I accept the fact that I have made these mistakes, and that these are the results. I’m still very appreciative of the support that we’ve received, from the university, in particular Mike Hamilton and Jimmy Cheek. They have stood by me, and I know I’ve disappointed them, but they have stood by me through this and I appreciate that.
“It’s our intention to overcome this adversity, and it’s my anticipation that we will.”
Pearl said he expects the Vols — who are ranked No. 24 nationally and coming off their first Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament — to play well in his absence.
“When Melvin Goins got hurt and he couldn’t play against Missouri State, it didn’t stop Skylar McBee and Trae Golden from playing the [point guard] position and performing,” he said. “We’re going to be without the head coach for eight games. My assistant coaches are going to step up, and the players are also all going to have to step up. ... As far as the results are concerned, we’re just going to have to see what happens.
“We’ve got a long ways to go to try and become a good team, and just because we overcame adversity last year doesn’t mean we will this year. But it’s our job, as coaches, to prepare our teams for adversity — foul trouble, injury — and that’s the situation we find ourselves in.
“I have been a very public advocate for playing by the rules, and when you don’t play by the rules, these are the things that can happen. And so while these penalties that we’ve self-imposed and now the commissioner’s imposing are unprecedentedly strong, it sets a very high standard and a standard that I agreed to.”
• Correspondent Matt Dixon contributed to this report.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.