Commentary: Timing of Bruce Pearl’s return to coaching is awkward

Knoxville News SentinelMarch 19, 2014 

— So much for the column about the importance of point guard play in the NCAA tournament.

As he has a way of doing, Bruce Pearl changed the agenda Tuesday, even from afar. For one news cycle (at least), Tennessee’s return to the NCAA basketball tournament wasn’t the top story we thought it was when we woke up in the morning.

As the Vols were buzzing through their public practice at Dayton Arena on Tuesday afternoon, photos were popping up on Twitter of Pearl bursting out of a plane in Auburn, Ala., wading into a crowd with a huge grin on his face.

He’s the new coach of the Auburn Tigers.

And for a couple of hours next winter, he'll be stalking the sideline by the visitors bench at Thompson-Boling Arena. Won’t that be awkward.

The timing of Pearl’s return to coaching is awkward, too. He didn’t plan to upstage Tennessee – the school that fired him in 2011 amid an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations.

Auburn just worked fast. Athletic director Jay Jacobs fired coach Tony Barbee last Wednesday night as soon as the final horn blew on the Tigers’ SEC tournament loss. Six days later, Jacobs was introducing Pearl.

Maybe you saw Jacobs’ Twitter announcement: “BOOM! coachBrucePearl”

Boom is right. The aftershock even reached Dayton.

At their turn on the podium in Tuesday’s press session, the Vols were asked about Pearl.

“We ain’t got no comments on the Auburn situation,” said senior Jeronne Maymon “We’re here to talk about Tennessee.”

You, Jordan McRae?

“What Jeronne said.”

Maymon laughed when the question arose. A few minutes later, so did Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin in a private chat before practice.

He laughed because he knew it had to be coming, even in this venue at this critical moment for his program.

“Our focus is on Tennessee basketball and the NCAA tournament,” Martin said. “I’m happy for Bruce and his family. I wish them the best.”

Pearl’s popularity and availability have been a distraction for a while, more so because Tennessee’s regular season didn’t go as well as expected.

Not that Martin would ever address it on the record.

“Dealing with distractions, that’s your job as a coach,” Martin said. “That’s part of our sport.”

That’s it. End of discussion.

Ironically, another Tennessee coach was dealing with a job-security distraction when he brought a team to Dayton Arena for an NCAA tournament.

That was Jerry Green in 2001. It would be his last game at Tennessee.

In 2005, another UT coach was in the same boat as the season played out. But Buzz Peterson never made it to Dayton or any other NCAA venue.

Dane Bradshaw was a sophomore on Peterson’s last team. He would play his final two years for Pearl.

“I remember how that team was effected by the distraction,” Bradshaw said Tuesday. “I won’t name names but a couple of guys laid down.

“It’s been the complete opposite this year with Coach Martin. The players have wanted to play for him. There was a sense of urgency.”

Fair point. The Vols finished strong, winning five straight then taking No. 1 Florida down to the final minute at the SEC tournament. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.

I strongly suspect that whether they win or lose against Iowa on Wednesday night will have nothing to do with Pearl or whatever meltdown might be occurring among UT fans back home.

For a couple of hours, at least, perhaps the Vols will get the undivided attention they deserve.

Maybe I'll even write about the point guards.

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