Coach Bruce Pearl addresses the arrests of four UT basketball players
The room for Bruce Pearl's weekly media chat was considerably more crowded than usual Monday.
Big win at Memphis to discuss, of course. And - duh! - No. 1 Kansas coming to town.
Only neither of the above topics ever came up, really.
"I would have preferred coming in here today and have about half of you here,'' Pearl said somberly.
For the second time in less than two months, University of Tennessee athletes and guns are in the headlines.
In November, it was three of Lane Kiffin's football players. Now, it's four of Pearl's basketball players.
In either case, marijuana is involved but takes a back seat to a bigger issue.
Not to minimize marijuana. It is illegal, a violation of team and NCAA rules. But we're used to marijuana stories.
Are we going to have to get used to gun stories, too?
I sincerely hope not.
College athletes packing guns? I don't get it. I'm betting a majority of troubled Vol fans are with me on that one.
"The gun culture is something I don't understand at all,'' he said Sunday night after he practiced what was left of his squad after four indefinite suspensions. "It's all so new to me.
"I've been coaching in college for 31 years and this will be the first gun incident.''
Confession: I'm not a gun guy. Never had one. Don't want one. But I enjoy Clint Eastwood movies and fully respect your constitutional right to bear arms. I'm not looking for a fight with the NRA.
So I'm trying to get my middle-aged head around what Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams were up to, cruising through town at midday New Year's Day with a couple of handguns in the car.
Presumably, they were not on their way to a half-baked stickup like the one footballers Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards allegedly perpetrated in November.
On the other hand, these weren't pellet guns. They were the real thing. With a clip of real bullets.
Handguns are quite in vogue among professional athletes. I read where NFL veteran Jabar Gaffney estimated "90 percent" of NFL players had a gun.
That figure is probably overstated, at least a bit. But pro athletes are high-profile guys with high-profile salaries and, in some cases, flashing high-profile bling. They are targets and feel they need protection.
From each other, even. The Vols don't even take the prize for the most publicized gun incident over the holidays. NBA teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden are alleged to have drawn on each other in the locker room.
College athletes may be famous but they're not rich. Thus, if they're minding their own student-athlete business, from whom would they need protection?
But they love to emulate pro athletes in almost every way. Is packing a piece just a misguided form of hero-worship?
Is a gun a status symbol among young males? Is it an accessory stylized by the rap or hip-hop culture?
Just grasping here, folks. If it's going to become an issue in college sports I'd like to get a handle on it.
At UT, all of a sudden, it already is an issue.
Pearl, on Monday, was asked how he thought his team would fare on the court without the suspended players.
"The task at hand is formidable,'' he said. "But we have got weapons. We have still got weapons.''
Then he stopped and grimaced, realizing his untimely choice of words.
"That's terrible,'' he said. "I apologize.''
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276.