Volunteer state: Another coach, another possible problem

The Chronicle of Higher Education report of alleged academic fraud dropped like an anvil on the University of Texas basketball Wednesday.

It could ultimately drop even harder on the University of Tennessee, a school that already has suffered numerous blunt-force traumas to its basketball program in recent years.

Rick Barnes was the coach of the Longhorns in the years mentioned in the report, which stretch from 2006-13. The report mentions alleged academic impropriety and/or questionable academic outcomes involving three former players: P.J. Tucker, J'Covan Brown and Martez Walker. An earlier Chronicle story detailed potential academic fraud committed before entering college involving two former Longhorns, though only one (Brown) was named.

Texas issued a statement Wednesday in response, saying in part:

"Working with external NCAA bylaw and academic compliance experts Gene Marsh and Geoff Silver, UT is investigating allegations raised by The Chronicle of Higher Education and has contacted the NCAA about them.

"We determined that the university had no knowledge of two former student-athletes allegedly receiving improper help with high school coursework before they enrolled. We now are reviewing three other cases purported to have occurred over a nine-year period since 2006 to determine if any university or NCAA rules were violated and if any action is needed.

"The university has no information that suggests former Men's Basketball Coach Rick Barnes knew of or was involved in any academic improprieties."

That last sentence is certainly the most important sentence to the folks at Tennessee, where Barnes landed very quickly after being forced at out at Texas. But that could be a matter for the NCAA to decide in the future. (If an investigation does find violations at Texas, Barnes could still face sanctions.)

For the Volunteers, basketball has become a recurring headache. When the Chronicle story published, athletic director Dave Hart found himself having to deal with problematic headlines in that sport one more time. The school provided Yahoo Sports with this statement from Hart:

"Obviously we can't talk about what happened in the past at another university, however as stated clearly by the University of Texas, 'The university has no information that suggests former men's basketball coach Rick Barnes knew of or was involved in any academic improprieties.' Coach Barnes has a sterling reputation as a person of very high ethical standards at every institution he has represented and we are excited to have him lead our men's basketball program."

Barnes got the Tennessee job because Hart had to fire his last coach, Donnie Tyndall, after all of one year on the job. During that single season leading the Volunteers, reports surfaced that Tyndall was involved in a messy NCAA violation situation at his previous school, Southern Mississippi, and while that's never good, it was triply bad for both Tyndall and Tennessee.

That's because Tyndall already had been found to have committed NCAA violations at Morehead State a few years earlier. And also because Tennessee had been forced to fire the popular Bruce Pearl after the NCAA slammed him for violations as coach of the Vols.

Between Pearl and Tyndall was a three-year period of moderate success – and zero NCAA embarrassments – under Cuonzo Martin. During Martin's third season, Tennessee fans showed him their appreciation by signing a petition by the thousands urging the school to get rid of him and bring back Pearl. After Martin took the Vols on a surprising run to the 2014 Sweet 16, he responded to that cold shoulder by abruptly leaving for California.

Tennessee hired Rick Barnes on March 31, making him the fourth men's hoops coach in four years. (AP)
Tennessee hired Rick Barnes on March 31, making him the fourth men's hoops coach in four years. (AP)

And, you may ask, what is Donnie Tyndall up to now that he's an ex-coach of the Vols? Managing a pro wrestling match Saturday. If that doesn’t secure sideshow status for Tennessee basketball, I don’t know what does.

If you're scoring at home, here’s what Tennessee’s basketball program has done since 2011: It fired one coach for lying to the NCAA about violations while coach of the Vols; it fired another coach for likely NCAA violations committed before being coach of the Vols, although he was hired despite already having an NCAA rap sheet; the guy who was fired for lying to the NCAA was the popular choice to come back, at the expense of the one coach who had no major violations on his record; and now there are allegations of academic malfeasance at the previous place of employment of the incoming coach of the Vols.

Barnes, the fourth coach since '11, was hired by Hart on March 31. His firing at Texas was announced March 29. It had been in the works for a couple of days prior to that, but the fact remains that Tennessee moved very quickly from courtship to marriage with Barnes. A year earlier, Tyndall had been hired seven days after Martin left.

Thus the question in 2015 is the same as the question was in 2014, when the Tyndall stuff blew up: Should quick-draw Tennessee have slowed its search long enough to know what was in the coaches' closets before making those hires?

From a compliance standpoint, the Tyndall hire is far less defensible than the Barnes hire. On March 31, there wasn't really anything to worry about with Barnes from that standpoint – and, ultimately, there still may not be. If there is an NCAA investigation at Texas (which is unclear at this point) it may not name Barnes at all.

But here's one more thing to consider: Less than a month into his Tennessee tenure, Barnes secured a commitment from junior-college player Ray Kasongo. That commitment was confirmed to the Knoxville News-Sentinel by Brandon Bender, Kasongo's longtime mentor. Bender is a recurring and controversial figure in basketball circles, named in NCAA violations that landed Central Florida on probation and earned the school a one-year postseason ban in 2012.

If Barnes and his staff are dealing with Brandon Bender, what could possibly go wrong?

But that's another potential anvil drop for another day. For now, nobody would blame Dave Hart if he comes to work wearing a hard hat and waiting for the next blow to land.