Booming over the din of a lunchtime rush, Tony Jones hit a new octave. Heads turned one by one.
“No way, man.”
There was no telling whether the news coming from the iPhone was traumatic or triumphant. Onlookers tugged attention back to their burgers. “OK, OK, OK ” Jones continued, nodding to no beat.
“Well that’s great, man, I’m so happy for you.”
Jason Shay, Jones’ former co-worker at the University of Tennessee, was on the line. He delivered the four magic words: I got a job.
“This is huge,” Jones said, hanging up, barely looking up, instantly poking the screen, shooting out text messages.
“First Forbes, now Shay,” he said, eyes trained downward.
Twenty-four hours earlier, news broke regarding another former co-worker. Steve Forbes had scored an assistant coaching gig at Wichita State.
Jones was thrilled for both. He was thrilled for himself, too. A cloud that he says “shadows all the good things we did” is slowly inching toward the horizon.
“It’s (expletive) awesome, I’m telling you,” Jones said. “This is awesome.”
For more than two years, Jones, Forbes and Shay have walked knee-deep in the churn of an unshakable past. They, along with their boss, basketball coach Bruce Pearl, were fired at Tennessee in March 2011. The fallout of a public, divisive NCAA investigation was each receiving a one year show-cause sanction and Pearl being hit with a three-year punishment.
A show-cause serves ostensibly as a ban. While the penalty is in place, an athletic department must show the NCAA cause for hiring the perpetrator.
For the assistants, the one-year sentence came and went. None returned to Division I coaching. Jones toiled along as Alcoa High School’s coach, choosing to stay in Knoxville while his daughter finished her degree at UT. Forbes and Shay stuck it out at a highly regarded junior college, Northwest Florida; Forbes as the coach, Shay as an assistant.
Second chances don’t come easy.
Finally, an epochal victory came this week.
“I’d rather it not be out there,” a hesitant voice said. “I just don’t want to screw anything up.”
At the moment, Jason Shay prefers to not publicly name the Division I program he’s expecting to join, except to label it a Big Sky Conference team.
It’s reluctance due to experience.
Shay thought he had Division I jobs lined up twice before — once at a Sun Belt Conference program, once at another Big Sky school. Each time, the coach bringing him on board saw the hire axed by a university administrator.
“For some athletic directors or (university) presidents, there’s that leeriness,” said Shay, who was Pearl’s lead scout at UT, helping guide the Vols to six NCAA tournament appearances. “They just don’t want it. They’re not comfortable taking the chance so they’d rather just avoid it.”
He’s confident this recent offer has legs.
“It’s about relationships and trust,” he continued. “You build those relationships and hope that someone is willing to stick their neck out for you and give you an opportunity.”
Jones too has seen opportunities wrenched away. It wasn’t willed ignorance that prompted him to step down as Alcoa’s coach this spring. He thought he was walking through a revolving door to an assistant coaching job in the Big East.
That backfired when an athletic director snuffed out the hire. The same letdowns have occurred twice since. An eastern mid-major school broke his heart, followed by a midwest mid-major.
“I don’t know if I was naïve, but after the show-cause penalty expired I thought (a new job) was a foregone conclusion, not knowing that some schools would have the mentality that a guy who had previous violations wouldn’t be welcomed,” Jones said.
After Forbes landed at Wichita State this week, Jones text messaged him congratulations. After some back and forth, Jones lamented over job prospects that came and went.
“I feel your pain,” Forbes responded.
“Just see what you can do with these,” Bruce Pearl said. “I think color-coding the map might be best, but you do what you think is best.”
Handed a fistful of files, the H.T. Hackney Company secretary responded, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“OK, let’s see how good you can be,” the old coach said.
Pacing down the hallway like he did the orange sideline at Thompson-Boling Arena, Pearl looks the part of a competent, confident vice president of marketing for a $4 billion company.
“This is my world now,” he says. “I’m in with both feet.”
And they rest in mirror-still waters. Unlike his former assistants, a second chance isn’t an applicable option. Pearl’s show-cause doesn’t expire until August 2014.
So the fourth-winningest coach in UT history splits time between H.T. Hackney, a wholesale grocery distribution firm headquartered in Knoxville, and an analyst job at ESPN.
A year from now, who knows?
In the here and now, Pearl says his former assistants being hired is “a significant positive step.”
“I’m just happy for them and their families,” he added. “It’s been so difficult and this whole thing hurt so many people and hurt so many families. Obviously I am responsible for much of it and feel really bad about how I led this group and how I let them down. I’m just thrilled that they’re able to bounce back and have success.”
Shay, Jones and Forbes all received their show-cause violations for not being “forthcoming” in the NCAA’s investigation of UT.
All three faced cornered desperation back in 2010 when presented with the now-infamous picture of Pearl and current Ohio State guard Aaron Craft at a barbecue. If any had identified the photo as being at Pearl’s house, which it was, he’d caste a disloyal die — an absolute no-no in this business. Not being forthcoming was the alternative.
But that’s all in the past. No one is interested in rehashing those ashes.
The old fire, though, leaves lingering smoke.
The anatomy of a second chance is dissected by discernment.
In collegiate athletics, vetting those deserving a rebirth falls to coaches, athletic directors and university administrators. All risk their own skin by tabbing an individual with “a past.”
“(The show-cause) is still a significant hurdle to get over,” said ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke player Jay Bilas. “It’s not the idea of forgiveness. I think most people are willing to do that. I think the problem is when you’re dealing with an organization like the NCAA, they have a long memory. There’s a perception that (a program) will draw more attention to (itself) by hiring someone who was subject to the show-cause. All of a sudden, everything will be looked at and scrutinized by the office in Indianapolis.”
Fair or not, that’s reality.
Second Chances: Defeating the stigma of the NCAA show-cause
Only coaches are subject to receiving a show-cause for misdeeds. No athletic directors feel its wrath. No university president need fear it. The penalty is meant to inhibit a coach violating NCAA rules from hopping ponds to another job, leaving a mess in the wake.
The prejudicial catch is no circumstance is ever the same. Whether it’s Pearl, Forbes, Shay or Jones, all are conjoined by one set of facts: They were at Tennessee in 2010. They broke the rules. They got fired. They all received show-cause penalties.
“The offense at Tennessee was so small — guys losing their jobs over a barbecue — but the sense of perspective is often lost in those cases,” said Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy. “The lazy people lump them all together and that’s not a reasonable course.”
But one that’s traveled nonetheless. Forbes was hired at Wichita State because Gregg Marshall boasts the carte blanche of a 2013 Final Four appearance. He can hire who he wants with little push-back.
Marshall celebrated being a vehicle for Forbes’ renaissance.
“We are excited to have someone with his skill set, who is also looking for a second chance in our profession, to join our staff,” Marshall said in a school release.
And Forbes, who won 62 of 68 games at Northwest Florida, is happy to push history further into the past. He courteously declined to speak for this story. He left it at this: “Honestly, I’m not very interested in doing another Tennessee article. This is my second job since I left Tennessee. I’ve had nine jobs in 25 years and Tennessee is just one of many.”
According to a March 2013 report from the Associated Press, of the 44 former men’s basketball coaches handed show-cause penalties since 2000, at least 25 found other coaching jobs. Most came after the orders expired.
That’s just 55.6 percent.
Getting a job is only a portion of the problem raised by a show-cause. It’s an albatross that loosens the screws on the coaching ladder.
“The NCAA uses that as a scarlet letter,” Bilas said. “They want it to follow you around and they want it to be a deterrent.”
Pearl, meanwhile, will be a white whale of sorts come next year. Who will have the juice to hire him? How eager will he be to return to the sideline?
“Bruce is one of the top 25 (college) coaches out there,” DeCourcy said. “There are 346 head coaches and he’s better than all but two-dozen or so. If someone has a big-time opening this spring and doesn’t hire him, they will have made a severe mistake.”
Some second chances are easier to come by.
Tony Jones has the unique ability to be vulnerable and defiant all at once.
“You kind of get calloused to it,” he said, oddly smirking. “Yeah, I’m interested in job offers, but now in the back of my mind, this roadblock is there in front of me. I’ll get through it though.”
Jones didn’t eat lunch, didn’t even peek at the menu. He talked with a glass of water in one hand, the iPhone in the other. He swore, again and again, he doesn’t want sympathy.
“What happened, happened,” he said. “It was a minor slipup that became major.”
Jones is open to alternatives, though he says the words “pri-vate sec-tor” through a mouthful of glass shards. Most believe if Pearl lands a job next spring, his first phone call will be to hire Jones.
That’s two second chances in one.
It’s also well down the road.
For now, Jones needs to eat.
Tucking the iPhone in a pocket and pulling away from the table, Jones is asked the million dollar question.
Do you feel like the stank is starting to wear off?
“Yeah, and it’s about time. It’s about damn time.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn