Posted by Matt Jones
December was not a good month for Bruce Pearl . It is bad enough that the Tennessee coach had a losing record for the month, with four losses against the decidedly mediocre quartet or Charlotte, Oakland, USC and College of Charleston, planting the Vols decidedly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. But then Pearl found himself the recipient of another round of “How is Bruce Pearl the coach at Tennessee?” questions following his embarrassing interview with Seth Davis on CBS. What was once a possible season of redemption has now become simply a season of survival, as the wheels have completely blown apart the Tennessee locomotive.
January doesn’t look to be much better. With an eight-game SEC suspension beginning on Saturday, Bruce Pearl will coach only two games for Tennessee in the month, both of which now look like must-wins for his Tournament future. The Vols play Memphis in Knoxville on Wednesday and then make the rare trip to Storrs, Connecticut to meet Jim Calhoun and UCONN on the January 22. Both games give Pearl’s squad a chance to get what the SEC will provide few opportunities to obtain, a resume-building win. With Tennessee’s conference down to two ranked teams, winning at least one of the two non-conference battles is imperative and taking both may be required to go dancing this March.
And for Pearl, the NCAA Tournament may now represent much more than simply a season’s goal, it could be the difference between the continuation of his career and a move away from the major conference spotlight. Since the revelation that Pearl lied to the NCAA, the coach has had his Tennessee contract voided and he is now working on an “at-will” basis. The University is clearly waiting to see what sanctions will be handed down by the NCAA and whether they will inhibit Pearl’s ability to lead the Vols into the future. For a basketball program that was on the verge of a Final Four last year and hasn’t seen consistent success since the “Ernie and Bernie” show in the 1970s, letting go of a winning coach would be difficult. But if that same coach has watched while his team has imploded and found himself out of the NCAA Tournament in a year where the SEC is at its lowest point in over a decade…well that is a different story.
It is bizarre to imagine that in today’s NCAA world where Dez Bryant told a fib about knowing Deion Sanders and found himself out of a collegiate career, Bruce Pearl could still have a job. But as of now, he does. While one might argue that Pearl’s actions in the past should determine his future with the school, at this point he seems to have survived part of the storm from the NCAA sanctions. However, with the dual realities of the acknowledged difficulty in firing a winning Coach and Pearl’s collapsing team’s next ten games featuring eight conference games from which he is suspended, one against a top ten team and the other against the school’s most heated rival, his future is far from secure. For eighty percent of the Vols' January schedule, Pearl will not be on the sidelines and have virtually no control over the contest's outcomes. But due to the precarious situation Pearl finds himself in, the way his team plays will not only decide whether the Vols will make the NCAA Tournament in March, it may go a long way in determining whether he will still be there this time next season.Photo: AP