Pearl comes clean … and pays for it

That honesty is the best policy is a long-held philosophy. In the case of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl, it now has a price tag: A whopping $1.5 million, which could increase to $2 million if he doesn’t remain the Volunteers coach through 2015.

Bruce Pearl admitted he lied to NCAA investigators and Tennessee decided to cut his pay.
(Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)

Pearl was cited for “misleading” the NCAA enforcement staff during an investigation into what can generally be called excessive phone calls to recruits. Pearl admitted he didn’t tell the truth in a June interview. He said he regretted it immediately and came clean about it to his boss, athletic director Mike Hamilton, in July. Hamilton confirmed the story.

“I’m truly sorry,” Pearl said Friday before, comically and perhaps ironically, a fire alarm interrupted him.

The delayed honesty didn’t stop Tennessee from taking the unusual, and dramatic, route of hitting the coach up where it counts.

It’s commonplace for schools facing an NCAA investigation to apply self-sanctions in an effort to appease the Association, which can still hand down additional penalties. So UT cut the number of official visits recruits can make, curbed recruiting possibilities by the coaching staff and even prohibited Pearl from recruiting off campus from Sept. 24, 2010 until Sept. 23, 2011.

If UT stopped there, this was a serious response. Going after Pearl’s salary took it to a new level – one that might make coaches everywhere think twice about their compliance in NCAA matters.

Pearl’s contract reportedly averages $2.3 million through fiscal 2015. He was set to earn $1.9 million this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2011.

He will now receive $500,000 less in fiscal 2011, $600,000 less in fiscal 2012, $200,000 less in fiscal 2013 and $100,000 less in fiscal 2014 and 2015. A $500,000 retention bonus he was to receive if he was still UT’s coach in November of 2012 will now be pushed back to 2015.

Three of Pearl’s assistant coaches were also hit with 25 percent reductions in pay and banned from recruiting off campus for between three months and one year.

The recruiting sanctions alone are serious. The bad publicity doesn’t help. It stands to reason these are less than ideal conditions for this weekend’s visit by top recruits Adonis Thomas, a star power forward from Memphis, and verbally committed guard Kevin Ware of Georgia.

Still, those kinds of recruiting penalties have been handed down for years.

It’s the monetary hit that got the attention of some of Pearl’s peers.

“[UT] whacked him where it hurts,” said one Big Ten coach via text message.

Pearl isn’t going to the poor house – he’ll still earn a reported $1.4 million in fiscal 2011. Still, a million-dollar-plus loss is a million-dollar-plus loss.

The Tennessee case aside, in general one of the inherent difficulties of keeping college sports “clean” (adhering to the NCAA’s definition of amateurism and fair play) through the years is that crime pays.

Becoming a successful in coach in major college sports will make you a multi-millionaire. The quickest route there is to acquire the best players possible. The easiest way to do that is to go beyond the NCAA’s recruiting limits.

While there was cheating in college athletics long before coaches were making piles of cash, now winning isn’t the only motivation. Setting yourself and your family up financially for life is attainable also. Money corrupts.

People of all walks of life knowingly break the law and risk incarceration for far less than what major basketball coaches make.

And the “cheating” is pretty easy to justify. Making extra phone calls isn’t exactly the stuff of Bernie Madoff.

In college sports even the most egregious cheating scandals feature acts that would be applauded in any other world – getting a poor kid extra money, helping a disinterested student gain a second chance at a college degree, etc.

The NCAA rules are not the law. Nor are they a definitive moral judgment on a man.

While Pearl was clearly embarrassed Friday in a remorseful press conference, no coach is going to face criminal charges for calling a high school recruit more than once a week and then lying about it to NCAA investigators as they pore through your phone records. Pearl said it was a one-time mistake and promised redemption, “I will not let you down again.”

Pearl is still going to get paid. He’s just going to get less. In the past colleges have continued to compensate coaches caught breaking rules at full salary. Even coaches dismissed for cheating received rich buyouts. Some have continued to garner raises, earn new contracts or be hired by other schools.

In their wake, the university is stuck paying law firms to battle the NCAA. Those bills routinely reach $1 million.

With five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, he’s arguably the most successful coach in the history of Volunteer basketball (men’s, of course). He’s also a winning, and popular, ambassador for the university. So you can understand why he was able to keep his job. UT’s chancellor declared him “family.”

That didn’t stop the Volunteers from finding a creative way to punish him directly though. And it may not stop other schools from following their lead.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 10, 2010