Great idea, bad timing is the best way to characterize ESPN's College GameDay production at Thompson-Boling Arena today.
The timing: UT men's coach Bruce Pearl, who is serving the third game of an eight-game SEC suspension, can add nothing more than another household to ESPN's TV ratings. You still will have the fans, the rivalry, and Pat Summitt's 36-year-old basketball dynasty. But you have lost your leading man.
GameDay was made for Pearl, who is as comfortable and competent articulating at courtside as he is screaming from a bench. If this was basketball business as usual, he would probably greet the early-arriving students at the arena and anchor ESPN's stretch run by providing celebrity commentary on the Lady Vols-Vanderbilt nightcap of the day-night doubleheader.
Can you imagine GameDay selecting UT as its 2011 leadoff hitter without Pearl? UT men's basketball pre-Pearl often didn't warrant a nationally televised minute.
Now, Pearl's absence becomes the story of the day. And it's not a story UT fans want to hear. In fact, they might want to skip the rest of this sentence in which I mention the program is under NCAA investigation and Pearl has been penalized substantially for lying to investigators.
As tiresome as that might be to UT fans, it won't be ignored by anyone addressing a national audience. That won't make it any less grating to East Tennessee viewers, some of whom already have been offended by an ESPN telecast.
"They were bad-mouthing Pearl continuously," said Robert Burrell, a UT fan from Jacksboro who gave me his opinion in a phone conversation. "ESPN never gives Tennessee a break on nothing. That's just how I feel.
"When you're trying to watch a ball game and all you hear is bad-mouth over and over . . . so I just mute the television and listen to the radio."
Bob Kesling and Bert Bertelkamp will provide a friendly and familiar alternative on the Vol Network. Since I'm plugging networks here, that's AM 990.
Fans might trash ESPN behind its back, but not to its cameras. They will scream on cue and keep screaming from morning through night while reminding a national audience this isn't just a football town.
The men drew more than 19,000 for their last home game. The women drew more than 14,000. How many other schools can elicit that much support for two programs?
UT can count on its crowd. It can count on the Lady Vols, too. What's going on between Vanderbilt and them constitutes a rivalry only in the broadest sense of the word. UT has won 56 of the 63 games in the series and has never lost to the Commodores at Thompson-Boling. I realize the risk in submitting comparative scores as evidence, but I can't help noting that Vanderbilt lost to Ole Miss by five points a couple of weeks ago, and UT beat Ole Miss by 40 a week later.
The UT men are the variable on this day. They have beaten No. 5 Pittsburgh and No. 7 Villanova. They also have lost six of their last nine games, all against unranked teams. Even before they lost their coach, they often looked lost on game day.
Next week's schedule is comprised of road trips to Georgia and Connecticut, so even the most laid-back Vols should have a sense of urgency. They're 0-2 in the SEC and facing a Vanderbilt team buoyed by a victory over No. 24 Georgia on Wednesday and further bolstered by beating the Vols on their home court last season. That's one of only two UT losses in the last 13 SEC home games with Pearl on its bench.
But, as ESPN will remind you, Pearl isn't on the bench.