Roy Exum: The 'Big Orange' Tarnish

Monday, September 13, 2010 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

One of the best public relations ploys in the business is to announce any bad news on a Friday, hoping the sea of football games and church services over the weekend will wash the distaste away, but the news that Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl has accepted a $1.5 million "self-imposed" penalty for lying to the NCAA for cheating has sadly lingered with me.

But, first, the day before the Pearl news conference a former University of Tennessee linebacker, 24-year-old James Turner, was the victim of a shooting at the Austin Homes Housing Project in Knoxville. Turner, who was signed by Phillip Fulmer in 2004, played in 16 games and earned two varsity letters before he was dismissed from the team in March of 2007 for "an undisclosed violation of team rules."

It was also "undisclosed" why the Arkansas native was shot on Thursday, but suffice it to say Courtney Gillette, age 18, was charged with attempted murder after the bloody, former football player flagged down Knoxville police officers on East Jackson Avenue. Apparently, James Turner still lives in Knoxville and, after he was treated at the UT Medical Center, is now recovering at home.

Pearl had nothing to do with it, of course, but it was the latest incident that adds to the Big Orange lore and heightens awareness that UT really does has a growing image as the "The University of Thugs." At one time it was written in every UT coach’s contract that an NCAA sanction was cause for immediate dismissal, but evidently that is no longer the case. Winning is obviously more important, baby.

Pearl has been highly successful everywhere he's coached and his wonderful humor and spirit have been a huge blessing in Knoxville in recent years when the sagging football program and police blotter have dominated the news. His teams have now made five straight appearances in the “Big Dance.”

But you'll remember his "Wise Guys," the four basketball players who were stopped this New Year's Day with marijuana smoke coming from the vehicle. You might also remember there were two guns found with open alcohol containers in the car and that one of the pistols found had the serial numbers removed.

What is unbelievable is not one person went to jail. Oh, a suspended sentence was doled out and the best player got kicked off the team, but the Knoxville courts dutifully "washed" the case. A gun with altered serial numbers is said to be a federal case in any other city, but all four "Wise Guys" walked and a couple of them actually played in the NCAA post-season tournament in March, if you are connecting the dots.

This summer there was another bad incident at a place called Bar Knoxville when a crowd of Tennessee football players got in a brawl that left an off-duty police officer in a hospital's ICU unit with a fractured skull. The players have a court date this week, but, again, one kid was kicked off the team while the others played against Oregon Saturday night. The word is out this incident will also be "washed."

But now we have the biggest wash of all. When UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheeks presided over the hastily-called press conference, UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton explained Pearl would take a $1.5 million pay decrease that will be spread over the next five years. That sounds harsh until you find the UT basketball coach makes $2.4 million each year.

The greater catch to the whole thing is this: Right now there is only a NCAA "Letter of Inquiry," which doesn't go afoul of the university's presumed stand that any coach found guilty of a NCAA violation be fired. With the pro-active stance and self-imposed penalty, UT officials can now say, as Chancellor Cheek did on Friday, "He is paying a heavy penalty for those mistakes," and Pearl keeps his $2 million job. Pretty crafty, huh?

What makes it even better is that 15 years ago, when a youthful Pearl was an assistant at Iowa, he himself turned in another assistant coach to the NCAA for cheating. The accused, an assistant at Illinois named Jimmy Collins, denied it but Bruce then produced an actual tape of the illegal phone call and the Illinois coach was nearly fired and never became the head coach he longed to be.

Pearl was ostracized in Big Ten circles for blowing the whistle – nobody likes a snitch - but about 10 years later, a USA Today reporter asked Bruce if he would turn the guy in again if he had to do it over. Coach Pearl said, "Regrettably, I would because of principle. I'm a bit of an idealist. A lot of people got hurt in that situation, and it's unfortunate. But it's just a process that has to take place."

Last week at a place where "principle" seems to have taken a left turn but the "process" is now so unbelievable you can't make it up, a former UT player got shot at a housing project and the basketball coach admitted lying to the NCAA. But the big thing, of course, was Oregon beat the Vols by 35 after a storm delay, am I right?

Let me tell you something. Yesterday afternoon some reporters caught up with Jimmy Collins, who has since retired, and the old Illinois assistant said, “What goes around comes around. If I sound a little angry, I'm not angry anymore. God has taken care of that for me.

“But for me to say, ‘Well, I'm going to take the high road and say I feel bad for Bruce,’ my nose would start growing like Pinocchio,” said Collins. “It will be interesting to see what happens to him. I'm watching with a microscope."

Me, too. For some reason I believe marijuana and guns and shootings and cheating and lying are all connected in some sort of sinister way and, seemingly, the common thread here is colored a certain hue of orange.

I also believe that never has there been a time in Tennessee’s glorious history for anyone who truly loves the university, and all it stands for, to firmly demand that the university's board of trustees finally clean it up. They’ve talked about it, talked a lot. Now is the time to start doing whatever it takes.

If not, the stench of hypocrisy that now lies so heavily in Knoxville may well overwhelm us all.

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