Pearl won't leave UT -- not now

Tennessee men's basketball fans face a Catch-22 dilemma.

If your coach isn't wanted by anyone else, your team probably isn't very good.

If your coach is wanted, you're worried about losing him.

Vol basketball fans are worried about losing Bruce Pearl – for good reason. He's done a masterful job in guiding Tennessee to a 18-3 record, a No. 11 AP ranking, first place in the SEC overall and a two-game lead in the SEC East Division.

He has destroyed the myth that you can't win in men's basketball because Tennessee is a football school, that Thompson-Boling Arena is a graveyard for coaches because it's too big, that the Lady Vols program overshadows the men's program.

You can bet a number of college programs throughout the country will inquire soon about trying to hire Pearl, one of the hottest commodities in college hoops.

But I'm here to tell you this: Bruce Pearl isn't leaving Tennessee – not after one year. In fact, I think he's here for the long haul. I think he's here to reap the benefits of a top 10 recruiting class, of putting more than 20,000 in Thompson-Boling Arena, of building a marquee program, of taking a team to the Sweet 16 on a semi-regular basis.

Why am I so confident Bruce Pearl will stay at Tennessee this year and beyond?

Loyalty. Pearl appreciates being given a chance by UT athletic director Mike Hamilton to coach at a major school. He also appreciates the $800,000 salary. Pearl made about $300,000 last year. Wisconsin-Milwaukee offered to roughly double his pay if he stayed. But he wanted a stage on which to build a Final Four team.

Some have suggested Pearl would be willing to leave for his alma mater, Boston College, or Iowa, where he was an assistant for six years. But Boston College had a chance to hire him and didn't. Iowa had a chance to hire him and didn't.

Pearl likes Knoxville. His wife likes Knoxville. His kids like Knoxville.

Son Steven, a 6-5 senior wing at West High School, said he might walk-on at Tennessee to play for his father. That's another reason for Pearl to stay in Knoxville.

``I'm not interested in leaving,'' Pearl told me. ``I'm confident Tennessee will treat me fairly.''

So, what is fairly? Somewhere between $1.2 million and $1.6 million. Two SEC coaches – Kentucky's Tubby Smith and Florida's Billy Donovan – are making $1.7 million. Smith has won a national championship. Donovan has played for one. Each has been at his respective school for more than eight years.

The third-highest paid coach in the SEC is Mark Gottfried of Alabama at $1 million. UT will surely bump Pearl to the No. 3 slot in the SEC.

Pearl has a $500,000 buyout if he breaks his UT contract. He would agree to a higher buyout if he gets a higher contract.

Pearl is content to wait until the end of the regular season or NCAA tournament to negotiate his new contract with UT. While he appreciates Hamilton's promise of a raise and extension, Pearl hasn't discussed any deal with his attorney, David Gruber of Milwaukee.

There is a residual effect to Pearl's new deal. If you hike Pearl's pay, what do you pay Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt? Summitt has won six national championships and an NCAA Division I record 900-plus games. She makes $825,000.

Summit has always been a team player. I don't think she'd throw a fit if Pearl made more money than she does.

You have to consider three things: One is the market value for the coach of a men's program over a women's program. More than 30 men's coaches make more than $1 million. No women's coach makes $1 million.

Secondly, the UT men's basketball program made over $4.4 million last year and could make as much as $6 million this year with the increase in ticket sales, concessions and souvenirs. The Lady Vols made $470,000 last year.

Thirdly, at Connecticut, men's coach Jim Calhoun makes about $2 million while women's coach Geno Auriemma makes less than $900,000. Granted, Calhoun has won a national title, but Auriemma has been the best women's coach over the past seven years.

Here's my prediction. Tennessee will pay Pearl between $1.2 million and $1.4 million with about a $1 million buyout. Summitt will get a hike to $1 million per year.

Summit won't complain, but her fans will. Summitt, being the class act that she is, can quell the complaints by saying she understands the market value for men's and women's programs and that she's happy with her deal.

She can point out that she started out making about $9,000 a year and never dreamed of being a million dollar coach.

Then, UT can look forward to having Pearl continue to build a program that could rival Kentucky and Florida over the next decade.

NOTE: If the Vols move ahead of the Lady Vols in the AP poll, it would be the first time the men have been higher ranked than the women since January of 1983. The men were ranked No. 8, the women No. 12.

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