By Henry Nichols
Special to Sports Media America
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.
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.
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, CBSSports.com and Athlon Sports Publishing.