A transfer who should be dumping his baggage By Tony Basilo
A prodigal prospect is about to return to Rocky Top, and with him comes the hope of a legitimate run at the Final Four for Bruce Pearl's Volunteers. Tyler Smith, fresh off his scintillating double-double (points and rebounds) freshman season at Iowa is transferring and said he intends to play next season at UT. Immediate eligibility will be up to the NCAA, but forgiveness has been granted as a young man and his family and their soon-to-be coach have made up and moved on. In a time that gave us what passed for forgiveness with the Imus situation, it's refreshing to see Bruce Pearl swallow his pride and move on.
Eighteen months ago, Tyler Smith, a hulking 6-8 forward regarded as a top 50 player in America, signed with Buzz Peterson and UT. He was the cornerstone of what turned out to be BuzzBall's last recruiting gasp. Smith took Peterson's firing in the Spring of '05 as a means of gaining his emancipation from UT. Despite Pearl's repeated attempts to re-recruit Tyler, the young man and his father Billy seemed hell-bent on hitting the road.
The Smiths were so adamant about not giving Pearl a chance in the process that the elder Smith, Billy, even took to going on various sports radio shows around the state and blasting Pearl for his â“lack of integrity, ethics and honor.â” That was a charge made to me in April of '05. Billy Smith called Pearl everything but Jerry Green in the process, even vowing that he would hit the phones and try and poison Tennessee's recruiting efforts. Billy Smith, upset with Pearl's refusal to grant his son a release from his scholarship, went as far on Bill King's show on WNSR Radio in Nashville to describe the then-new UT head coach as â“a butthole.â”
With both sides dug in, the PR battle continued for a couple of weeks as Pearl charged that he wasn't being given a chance and thus wouldn't release Smith because they â“weren't dealing with me in good faith.â”
The NCAA, being the plantation system that it is, locks a young man or woman to an institution virtually unconditionally, even with the firing of a recruiting coach. Even so, the Smiths were so anti-Pearl that they decided to do the unthinkable and have Tyler attend prep school for a year in order to circumvent the NCAA's rules and thus void Tennessee's scholarship. Still, they were given no release.
Following his year in prep school, Smith matriculated to Iowa, where he was wooed by Buzz Peterson loyalist and close friend Steve Alford. The 6'8â” Smith turned in a phenomenal rookie year, averaging 14.9 points per game in what turned out to be the last season for Steve Alford, who bolted Iowa for, of all places, New Mexico.
Alford's decision to say adios and his father Billy's battle with lung cancer had the homesick Tyler Smith wanting to tell new coach Todd Lickliter sayonara. So on Friday, April 20, Iowa gave him a release. NCAA rules mandate that Smith would have to sit out the upcoming season.
From the never-say-never department comes word from sources inside the Pearl administration that UT is helping prepare an appeal to the NCAA that will be aimed at gaining him immediate eligibility. Tennessee will focus on the precedent that has been set that allows a prospect to transfer closer to home to be near a sick relative. Tennessee brass could cite Tashard Choice, a running back from Atlanta who originally signed with Oklahoma in 2004 but transferred to Georgia Tech following his freshman season, gaining immediate eligibility. Choice transferred back to his home state to be close to an ailing parent.
Who would've seen this twist of events that have some in Big Orange Country wondering if it's prudent of Pearl to forgive, forget and welcome the young man back with open arms? After all, Smith and his now-ailing father not only shut the door on Pearl but did it publicly and defiantly. Also to consider is the fact that there was a shoplifting incident involving Smith last fall before his freshman season at Iowa.
In two years in Rocky Top, Pearl seems to have a way of making the unthinkable become reality. If anyone suggested this turn of events two years ago, I would've been expecting Big Orange Armageddon.
What to make of the sheer irony of Smith being left high and dry by a Buzz Peterson protÃ©gÃ© who bailed for New Mexico and welcomed back by the man the Smiths once painted as the Darth Vader of college basketball? Consider the irony of Iowa having the chutzpah to make a run at Pearl back in late March. Consider that Pearl was once a star assistant on Tom Davis' staff with the Hawkeyes a few decades back. The prodigal prospect is coming back to Rocky Top. Let's hope he doesn't bring too much baggage.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.
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