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September 12, 2010, 11:31 PM ET
News of the weird: Illinois grad applauds Pearl

by John Gasaway

On Friday Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said that he lied to the NCAA. Pearl met with investigators in June and now he says that he didn’t tell them the whole truth about how many phone calls he placed when to which recruit (or recruits).

Maybe Pearl called Josh Selby (who at one time committed to the Volunteers but later changed his mind) when he wasn’t supposed to. Or perhaps the coach made too many calls. Pearl might even have been using a second non-official cell to place calls. All we know for sure is that Pearl’s been docked $1.5 million in salary over the next five years by Tennessee.

If nothing else the school has earned marks for speed, having only received their Notice of Inquiry from the NCAA this week. (Thus the answer to John Clay’s question–why isn’t Pearl being suspended like Dez Bryant?–is simple: He might be, by the NCAA. The investigation is, as they say, ongoing.) Then again if you’re like me you’re starting to get a little suspicious of the alacrity with which football schools preemptively punish their basketball programs when their football teams are under investigation. (See also USC.)

Be that as it may, Pearl’s in the news for coming forward with the goods on himself–this from perhaps the sport’s most noteworthy ”whistleblower.” Two decades ago when Pearl was an assistant at Iowa, he went to the NCAA with information, including a taped phone call, that he said proved Illinois had offered a car and cash in order to land Deon Thomas. The ability of that case to insinuate itself back into the headlines again and again over the years can only be termed Sam Gilbert-like. It’s amazing. Back then, however, it seemed like something that everyone involved in would simply rather forget. Thomas became the all-time scoring leader at Illinois, but the case dogged him continually. Illinois was investigated by the NCAA, which found no evidence to support Pearl’s charges but did find a lack of institutional control. And Pearl, as you’ve heard, was “blacklisted” and exiled to D-II Southern Indiana.

And here’s where the story begins to go off track a bit. Blacklisted? On the one hand when voice of the fraternity Dick Vitale says you’ve committed career “suicide,” it sure doesn’t sound good. On the other hand there are at any given time well over a thousand people employed in some capacity as D-I coaching personnel. Pearl, coming off an appearance in the 2010 Elite Eight as the head coach at an SEC program, has clearly had a career that would place him in the 98th or 99th percentile of his profession in terms of success. I don’t doubt that Pearl’s big break came later than he would have liked, nor that his actions cost him some goodwill among his fellow coaches. But coaches aren’t the ones doing the hiring. Athletic directors are, and when ADs at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2001) and Tennessee (2005) thought Pearl was the best choice, they hired him, brazenly flouting the ukase from Dickie V. The blacklisted Pearl has done better than nine out of every ten un-blacklisted coaches. That is most certainly a tribute to Pearl’s ability and perseverance, but it’s also an indication that the term “blacklist” is being abused.    

Speaking of abused terms, whistleblower? Maybe it’s because I’m an Illinois grad, but if Frank Serpico had gone to the authorities with evidence of wrongdoing by the New York Mafia, or if Karen Silkwood had gone to the New York Times with evidence of wrongdoing by anti-nuclear activists, I don’t think their stories would be quite so heroic. I thought the whole point was that they were blowing the whistle on their own organizations and thus putting themselves at immediate risk. Pearl on the other hand went to the NCAA with information about a Big Ten rival–information that, if proven true, would be extremely harmful to a program that he competed with for recruits. After he provided that information he stayed at his job for another two years and then left to take a head-coaching gig in D-II.

Perhaps Pearl was motivated to go to the NCAA purely by a desire for cleaner college hoops, or maybe he was driven solely by competitiveness. Possibly it was a mix of both. But my queasiness with the term “whistleblower” as applied here has nothing to do with Pearl’s motives, which I can’t know, and everything to do with his position at that time and his methods, which we all know. If Pearl had started a nonprofit in 1989 called Citizens for Clean College Hoops and had come forward with Thomas’s knowledge and verification, maybe I could contribute to a statue. Instead, he was a coach at a competing program who called a teenager and secretly taped their conversation. If others can find a profile in courage in that sequence of events, so be it.

Which brings me back to Friday. If you’ve ever shouted at a politician caught in a scandal of his or her own making to stop stonewalling and equivocating and just step up and tell the truth already, well, maybe we just saw Pearl do it. Sure, you can say he knew he was going to face the music anyway (though we don’t know that’s true, yet), but even that level of awareness–much less the courage to act on it–would place Pearl’s performance far above that of many people who have walked this particular mile in his shoes. More to the point I have shouted at universities to stop stonewalling and equivocating and just step up and say, “We’ve received a Notice of Inquiry from the NCAA.” If what Pearl says happened really did happen, he’s praiseworthy not simply because he told the truth long before many people in his position do. He’s laudable because he told the truth at all. Others who’ve been dealt these same cards go to their professional exiles still loudly proclaiming their innocence. If the facts hold up, I’ll be OK with the praise coming Pearl’s way in 2030 for this one.  

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