Friday, March 11, 2011

A Pearl for a Byrd in Hand

By Henry Nichols
Special to Sports Media America

By any reasonable measure, when you subtract the emotions and moral relativity, you can’t escape the impending reality that Bruce Pearl is being weighed for the gallows this March at Tennessee.

When whispers of impropriety were first directed toward Tennessee over the past year or so, it initially looked as if a series of impermissible calls could garner Pearl the reputation of Kelvin Sampson Lite. A spot of bother? Sure. But probably not enough to buy a ticket to the ballpark of fireable offenses.

After all, if there was ever an obvious target of the NCAA’s microscope in the SEC East from the outset, it was John (“The Teflon Don”) Calipari. If Cal spent as much time teaching his players how to shoot free throws as he did corralling inexplicably-cobbled-with-blue-chips recruiting classes, he would probably have just vacated a national title before arriving in Lexington.

But at least Cal knows the 11th Commandment: “Don’t get caught.” Since last summer, Pearl has accomplished the unthinkable by cementing his legacy as a bigger cheat than even Vol fans could have retroactively dreamed Lane Kiffin to be.

Pearl (left) not only knowingly broke major NCAA recruiting rules, but he was stupid enough to deliberately entice the families of unsigned recruits, as well as his own staff, to break them with him. We’re talking about a faux pas so obvious that NCAA investigators already knew the damning truth, holding the photo of Aaron Craft at the illicit cook-out, before entrapping Pearl into his now-infamous lie.

Credit Craft’s family for at least having the common sense to back away from the train wreck while they still could. When Pearl cried like a bitch on national TV for his foibles (or rather, for getting caught), Big Orange Nation would have liked to believe the man had to have been humbled at rock bottom.

Not so. The straw that will likely break his program’s back was his improper contact with a recruit just a few days later. While technically a small infraction, it incontrovertibly showed he had zero remorse for his ways. That he would do what it took to win at all costs, to recruit at all costs just like always.

Under new NCAA prez Mark Emmert, college athletics, like Wall Street, faces a virtually unprecedented culture of corruption in the modern era. But from lowly bloggers to ESPN’s thorough Dana O’Neil, there can surely be no precedent found for a school terminating a coach’s contract but not his employment, but that is where Tennessee stands with lame-duck AD Mike Hamilton and his “Artful Dodger” of hoops.

By August, Pearl will likely have fallen on his sword or the NCAA, with Emmert playing the Robespierre role in the Terror of the collegiate rule-breaking elite, not only issuing Pearl at least a two-year show-cause penalty but also likely punishing the Vols program further for every day, week, month that Hamilton doesn’t drag Pearl out to the guillotine himself.

As for the wantonly delusional faction on Rocky Top that wishes to see Pearl remain chief of their bastion of anarchy under a shroud of competitively apologetic relativism, a popular hypothesis is that UT’s newest assistant, Houston Fancher, could stick around as interim coach for a year or two while Pearl and his other assistants sustain their inevitable NCAA suspension for their respectively complicit roles in the scandal. (Ironically, Fancher was the ill-fated successor at Appalachian State to Pearl’s predecessor at UT, Buzz Peterson, when Peterson left Boone, N.C., to take over as head coach at Tulsa a year prior to his move to Knoxville.)

Otherwise, if a regime change is indeed in the cards, conventional wisdom via popular local punditry is that the university (likely without Hamilton calling the shots) will seek a Pearl clone as best it can, complete with a dynamic recruiting flair, an up-tempo system, a defiant swagger and youthful vigor above all other criteria. But it would be a mistake.

The perfect candidate at this point in time is a UT alum who has been coaching in the state for three decades, tallying over 600 wins in that time frame. He would return respectability to Rocky Top both on and off the court, churning maximum production out of an inevitably rebuilding roster while jettisoning Pearl’s bad eggs. His track record suggests he would certainly perform a 180 on graduation rates at a program which has long been a laughingstock where student-athlete character and integrity are concerned.

Rick Byrd (left) has punched Nashville's Belmont University’s Big Dance ticket four of the past six seasons and currently has the Bruins rolling at a program-best 30-4 clip, with half of his team’s losses this season coming by single digits to his alma mater. But while Pearl seems to eschew off-court discipline lately in favor of on-court success at all costs, Byrd has consistently run a tight ship over the years with lesser known recruits and made it work to his advantage. An astounding 11 players in Belmont’s rotation play more than 10 minutes per game while none plays more than 25. Think he catches much flak from his leaders?

While Byrd has been more than comfortable at Belmont and could probably reach 800-900 wins there if he stayed through the end of the new decade, Tennessee might be the only job for which he’d leave. A Knoxville native, Byrd’s dad Ben served as a sports editor/writer for the Knoxville Journal for 40 years. Upon matriculating to UT, Byrd tried out for legendary coach Ray Mears’ varsity squad only to make JV.

Shortly thereafter, Byrd got his start in coaching under Mears as a graduate assistant in 1976. Other than being a vastly successful head coach, one of the few things he has in common with Pearl is that he spent his early years as a head coach patrolling the sidelines in college basketball’s wilderness: first at Maryville College in ‘78, then onto Lincoln Memorial in ‘83 before taking the reins at Belmont in ‘86, all gigs being at the NAIA level or lower before he finally, gently guided Belmont into provisional Division 1 status as an independent in ‘96.

Byrd knows all too well what it’s like to build a program completely from scratch and Lord knows whether he still has the energy to personify the phoenix that raises UT from the impending ashes of crippling sanctions. Besides his entrenched comfort in Nashville going on 58 years old, an obvious con to taking the Vols’ reins would be making an in-state, intra-conference rival out of best bud and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. The two already dread playing each other twice a decade as is.

For the average UT fan, the anxiously obvious question about Byrd would be, Can he recruit well enough at the SEC level?

If Byrd can be convinced to end his career where it started, his groomed successor at Belmont, associate head coach Casey Alexander (Belmont ’95), would no longer be by his side to inject a youthful enthusiasm on the recruiting trail or in practices. It’s also likely that fellow assistant Roger Idstrom, an Atlantic Sun Conference lifer at both BU and Gardner-Webb before that, would stay behind to ease Alexander’s transition to the head coach’s chair at his own alma mater. Belmont’s retention of those two would effectively dismantle the longest-tenured coaching staff in the nation.

But one need not be a great recruiter as a head coach to have program-wide recruiting success. Rather, Byrd would simply need to harvest some of the many contacts he has cultivated over the course of his coaching career. Longtime assistant Brian Ayers, an ex-Vandy assistant for two years in the late ‘90s, would be a logical resource to help Byrd adjust to the ‘Big Six’-conference level.

And what kind of student-athlete could Byrd recruit to Knoxville that would be SEC-caliber on and off the court? Someone like Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti might be persuaded to help carry out that task. Connected to Byrd through Stallings, Giacoletti alerted the Vandy staff a few years ago to an under-the-radar Australian center that he couldn't accommodate himself while still serving as Utah’s head coach. Just over a year later, A.J. Ogilvy set a program scoring record for a freshman, was named second-team All-SEC as a sophomore and helped the ‘Dores reach two NCAA tourneys in three seasons before going pro after his junior year and playing the past year in Turkey alongside Allen Iverson.

Part of the dilemma facing Tennessee coaches in all revenue sports is that the state sustains a shallow well of D-1 athletic talent within its borders. So in many cases--since they can’t appeal so often to a recruit’s pride in playing for the in-state school, nor can they offer as highly ranked a nearby in-conference education as Vanderbilt or Georgia--they are forced to take on out-of-state players with more baggage relative to SEC powerhouses like Florida or Kentucky in order to compete.

Since-dismissed or disqualified Pearl signees like Daniel West, Duke Crews and Ramar Smith are a testament to this. Meanwhile, nerdy Vanderbilt has reaped more in-state blue-chippers between the two in recent years, from current SEC scoring leader John Jenkins to 2011 signee Kedren Johnson.

Like many schools with similar structural recruiting dilemmas before them, an international approach to recruiting could be the answer. Non-American players likely don’t know anything about a program’s past other than someone has taken the pains to recruit them long-distance and has a system where they can thrive, and the inside-outside, interchangeable emphasis of Byrd’s offense provides a desirable impetus for internationals to buy in to the program, like St. Mary’s of late. Like their foreign counterparts, Byrd’s big men like to face the basket as much or more than having their back to it.

It’s unrealistic to expect Byrd to coach for more than another decade wherever he is, and such a transition would likely come with an eventually designated heir. That could be someone like Giacoletti. But whoever it is, it would be a younger coach who can recruit and bring the same fire Byrd has demonstrated for most of his career.

In essence, a Bruce Pearl without the baggage.

So as Pearl and Hamilton shed the last of their crocodile tears in a far-fetched attempt to prolong their tenures, UT and new president Joe DiPietro should continue revamping their athletic department--as they have started with football coach Derek Dooley--with leaders who will bring honor to Rocky Top instead of making their uniforms look like jumpsuits.

Convincing Byrd to come home for his swan song would do just that.

Henry Nichols is a Nashville writer and pundit. He has worked locally for WNSR-AM sports radio, and Athlon Sports Publishing.

Monday, March 07, 2011

C-SPAN: Home of the Thinking Man’s Foxes

When you don’t have money for a big exciting TV package, you have to settle for what you can get in Comcast basic limited cable. That’s what I do, anyway.

As my career as a journalist dwindles, and as my career as a musician never takes off, I am stuck making do with many things. Hence, my brain gets addled by watching awful network TV, which occasionally redeems itself with sports programming or the Thursday night NBC comedy lineup. Or the late-night re-runs of “South Park” on WGN. PBS also offers decent documentary stuff and “Antiques Roadshow” and the occasional British police procedural, usually very well-made, often putting to shame its American counterparts. (Honest, I only watch the execrable David Caruso on “CSI Miami” when I am absolutely hard-up for something to watch. Even then, I’m just waiting for Emily Procter to enter the screen.)

But I also feel very blessed that I can get C-SPAN, which I have come to watch pretty religiously. I mean, why watch a bad sitcom when you can see our actual legislative representatives and national leaders doing hilarious things in real time? And there’s hardly ever a re-run!

You can see the Brits and Canadians trying to manage a country too. Plus, C-SPAN delivers good interviews, mobile programming from around the country and the proceedings of political confabs of every stripe, not to mention the actual workings of the U.S. Congress, votes and all.

So there is much to learn watching C-SPAN, and I’d venture to say that I am better informed via my TV regimen than the average person with a fabulous cable package, mainly because a person with many choices would never opt for bland-looking, almost sepia-toned C-SPAN.

But here’s the dirty secret about C-SPAN: It has foxy ladies doing interviews and talking-head stuff on its “Washington Journal” early morning call-in show.

C-SPAN may be the last place in the world you’d expect to see hotties, but there they are: sexy chicks for news junkies.

Take Libby Casey. A correspondent for Alaska Public Radio, Casey moonlights with C-SPAN, and she’s a smoking hot babe in the Sarah Palin tradition. (Must be something about the air in Alaska.) I’m guessing Casey wears those Tina Fey/Palin glasses to distract us from the fact that she’s beautiful. But the fact is, that by wearing the glasses, we are compelled to look
beyond them, and then imagine what it would be like to be behind closed doors with her when she seductively removes them (the glasses, I mean). Casey is very prim and precise and calm and cheerful in her anchor duties, but it’s hard to avoid imagining the potential for smoldering sexuality that must lie within.

Then there’s Greta Wodele Brawner. She’s been on C-SPAN for about five years, but she still looks like she’s fresh out of college. If Libby Casey is the C-SPAN sexbomb, then Greta is their girl-next-door. She’s pretty and petite--really petite--and she looks great in pastels.
She also made the cover of the Jan. 2010 Washington Life magazine, looking slinky and sparkly and sophisticated. Greta has well swallowed the C-SPAN Kool-Aid: She is poised and almost hypnotically controlled on-set, quietly eliciting answers from guests and sweetly saluting phone-callers nationwide. Greta’s the girl you wanted to marry. And, in all likelihood, didn’t.

Which brings us to the grand dame of C-SPAN, veteran reporter/interviewer and C-SPAN executive Susan Swain. Swain’s an interesting case. She’s in her mid-50s. She’s a Catholic school girl all grown up who has excelled as a journalist and C-SPAN boss, yet she also performs with grace and control. She’ll be a little more aggressive in her questioning of guests as need be, but obviously that’s because Susan has been around and can sling it with the big boys. Nevertheless, she has that characteristic C-SPAN understatedness that bespeaks blessed civility, where a citizen can believe that productive discourse still really exists.

Of course, we can’t overlook that Susan is a pretty cute lady. Categorizing her as a cougar would be going a bit far, I guess, but Susan apparently likes Shakespeare, and I’m sure there are plenty of guys--young or old--who’d love to do a balcony scene with her.

So next time you zap the remote control past C-SPAN, on your way to HBO or ESPN 2 or TV Land or the Food Network or the thousands of other cable options you’ve got--just remember that there are hidden treasures of brains and beauty you might be missing.

Viva the C-SPAN babes! Long may they...uh...interview.

Bearing Up Under NCAA Injustice: Why the “Tourney System” Sucks

It happened again on Sunday. A regular season conference winner got beat in its league end-of-season tourney, and in so doing all but scuttled its chances for a berth in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Why does this totally suck? Because Missouri State’s 25-8 record should be good enough. Because the fact that the Bears were the regular season champions of the Missouri Valley Conference (15-3 record) should already have been enough to get them into the NCAA tourney. They were their league’s BEST team.

Oh, it’s quaint and all that--for Indiana State (20-13, 12-6) to receive the Big Dance automatic berth by virtue of winning the MVC tournament yesterday. Indiana State is Larry Bird’s alma mater, so there’s that. And no one can diminish the efforts of the Sycamores, who are gutty, scrappy and [insert your own adjective here to describe a mostly white, gym-rat-style college b-ball team]. (If the Sycs advance in the dance, I’ll be surprised, but of course stranger things have happened.)

The Sycs are a nice story, but so are the Bears, who went from last to first in the MVC this year and clearly posted the superior league and overall records. And where is justice--not to mention logic--when Missouri State now has to sweat out the tourney system in order to gain an at-large spot in the NCAAs?

The current scuttlebutt holds that the Bears won’t be selected, with teams from larger, older and more highly regarded leagues already in the hunt for at-large berths. Unfortunate, since the MVC is a good (if under-publicized and -rated) league. In the past they’ve sent teams to the NCAAs who have pulled upsets and made some impressive runs. Schools like Bradley, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and others in the 10-team league. Apparently, the 16-team Big East will be sending at least nine teams to the Big Dance. Anyone see the justice here?

Here’s my bugaboo: If the regular season records don’t mean anything, then why bother keeping ‘em? If there’s no reward for posting the best record in your conference--i.e., the automatic league berth in the NCAAs--then what does it matter? Presumably, they give you a trophy--or a banner to hang in your fieldhouse rafters--for winning the league regular season, but where the NCAAs are concerned, why not sit on your ass all year, and just start to hustle in the end-of-season league tourney, since that’s the only thing that counts? (Okay, that’s facetious, but the point still holds: there’s no reward for being good all year long.)

It’s time to change the system. Regular season league winners should get the automatic NCAA berth. After that, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee can use league tourney results to factor into their at-large decision-making along with all the other criteria like RPI, out-of-conference record, road victories, etc.

I really don’t know how or when things got to this bizarre point. But telling teams they aren’t good enough after they’ve proved it all year long? That just seems dumb to me.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Stalling Out: Vandy’s NCAA Tournament History Plagued by Misfires

Incredibly tell-tale stat: 1-11. That’s Vanderbilt head basketball coach Kevin Stallings’ record in season finales since he signed on with the Commodores in 1999.

The latest such event was last night’s 86-76 loss to Florida in Nashville. While the Gators have proven to be surprisingly strong in 2010-11, the ’Dores were looking pretty good themselves a little less than two weeks ago, with a 20-6 overall record (8-4 in SEC play).

But the ’Dores are at it again, looking like a talented, well-coached team most of the year and then flagging, their seeming lack of mental toughness once more promising an early end to their post-season. Vandy is guaranteed a slot in the NCAA basketball tournament, but after losing three of their last four games, including home games to Tennessee and Florida, you gotta start asking questions. For instance, Why can’t this program develop a killer instinct?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stallings (left) is a successful coach. He’s had only one losing season out of 12 with Vanderbilt. He’s won 20 or more games six different seasons. He’s earned four berths in the NCAAs, twice advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. But that’s as far as it goes.

Now, at 21-9 (9-7), they’ve missed a chance to draw a bye in the upcoming SEC year-end tourney, and they’re faced with the prospects of either 1) Losing in the first round, and diminishing their record even more (not a bad idea, actually, since they can rest up for the NCAAs); or 2) Playing at least two games in the league tournament and possibly more, padding their record--even though doing so means a grueling four-day schedule possibly facing lesser schools desperate to exploit the one last chance to possibly grab an NCAA berth by adding to their win totals or winning the tourney outright for an automatic bid.

In fact, Vandy gains nothing by winning a tournament game. No strategic advantage within the conference. No boost to their seeding in the Big Dance. And, really, if they aren’t practiced enough by now for postseason play, then it’s probably too late for them anyway, and all they do is risk injury by competing against, say, a fired-up Alabama squad trying to get off the bubble.

And come to think of it, the ’Dores’ resume suddenly doesn’t look that great. There was the win over North Carolina (in November), plus wins over Belmont, Marquette and St. Mary’s, but only two of those schools were ranked in the top 25. Plus, the ’Dores’ road record is not impressive. Their biggest non-conference road foe, Mizzou, beat them 85-82 in OT on Dec. 8.

Versus main SEC rivals Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida, Vandy is 1-5. Stallings has pointed to “moral victories” of late, but who wants to hear about moral victories come tournament time? A better team--a tougher-minded team--would be able to point to a stronger league record, bigger wins, and would have momentum on its side.

In seasons past, good players like Matt Freije, Derrick Byars and Shan Foster have led the Commodores into the NCAAs with high hopes. This year’s team MVP, John Jenkins, faces a similar scenario. But the team appears to have peaked, and who can forget 2008, when 13th-seeded Siena ousted #4 seed Vandy in the first round.

Looks like deja vu all over again.

Postseason Tournaments Still Seem Like a Waste

Also on the local beat, Belmont University, Nashville’s other NCAA entry, completed a fabulous 30-4 (19-1) season with an 87-46 victory over North Florida in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game.

Clearly the class of its league, little Belmont heads to the postseason with visions of repeating, or surpassing, its stunning 2008 near-upset of Duke. (The Bruins lost that first-round game 71-70, but served notice that veteran coach Rick Byrd knows what he’s doing with less than blue-chip talent.)

But here’s what’s messed up: It wasn’t enough for Belmont to go 30-4. In order to grab the NCAA bid, they still had to win the league tournament. So, if North Florida had gotten lucky--if a fluke had occurred, which is always possible--the A-Sun would have been sending a 16-18 team into the Dance.

Does that make sense to anybody? What’s the incentive to dominate at 30-4 when you could lose in the league tourney and be done for the year? (Or maybe take an NIT bid. Meh.)

Yep. Have a league tourney and risk sending a mediocrity to the NCAAs. All for a little more money. Stupid.