KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee associate head coach Tony Jones says filling in for head coach Bruce Pearl will be just like making another player substitution.
"I'll just fill in for a player that's injured for 2½ hours and try to do the same things that we would (normally) do," Jones said. "I know some of the things he would do right now before he'd even do them."
When the Vols (10-4) face Arkansas (10-3) in Fayetteville on Saturday, Pearl won't be on the court with them. Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive has suspended Pearl for eight conference games for lying to NCAA investigators during an ongoing probe into Tennessee's recruiting practices.
It's the first time in 18 seasons as a head coach that Pearl will miss a game.
"Had a lot of babies born, had enough illness, enough family reasons to miss a game here and there, and I've never missed one," Pearl said. "For me, I just feel like I'll be letting the team down. I've already let them down."
Tennessee is awaiting official notice from the NCAA of allegations that Pearl improperly hosted recruits at his home and that he and assistants made an excessive number of calls to recruits.
Pearl acknowledged in August that he mislead investigators during a June interview, and Tennessee punished him by docking his salary by $1.5 million over five years and prohibiting him from off-campus recruiting for a year.
He can take some comfort knowing his team is in the hands of Jones, who followed him from Wisconsin-Milwaukee to Tennessee and is now in his 10th season as Pearl's assistant.
It's been a long time since Jones has been the guy in charge, save a couple of times he's filled in after the head coach got ejected. His last head coaching job was for Team AAU Michigan from 1991-1993, when he coached future NBA stars Jalen Rose, Howard Eisley and Voshon Lenard, leading them to a 35-1 record and national title in 1991.
Jones did get a bit of a dress rehearsal in a loss to College of Charleston on Dec. 31, when Pearl was ejected with 5:25 to go after back-to-back technicals for arguing fouls. Pearl joked after that game he was just trying to get Jones a few extra reps.
Jones took over with the Vols down by 16 points and helped them get back to within nine points with 1:32 left, but Tennessee lost to Charleston 91-78.
"Whether he did it purposely or not, he helped me a lot to shake the nerves off, just to get the tempo of the game, the speed of the game, to be able to articulate my message to the players during the timeouts," he said. "It's definitely a different feel. Obviously you have a little bit more responsibility. You have to have a little bit more focus and concentration."
After a decade with Pearl, Jones expects he'll make many of the same decisions Pearl would be making during the game.
But Jones admits his style may not be quite as, well, loud as the coach who made headlines when he painted his chest for a Lady Volunteers game and is often seen stomping his feet and yelling on the sideline. His players expect Jones to be a bit calmer as well.
"Coach Jones, he has different methods to getting to you," junior guard Cameron Tatum said. "He can raise his voice and be a little intense as well, but he's the more calm, cerebral type of coach that tries to pick your brain a little bit to get you to play better. Sometimes those methods work, depending on who the player is. It's going to be interesting to see how we respond to that."
Pearl prefers Jones insert his own personality into his eight-game head coaching gig. Pearl recalls his own mentor, Tom Davis, telling him to have his own personality and do what he knew how to do.
"Tony's going to add his own personality to the game," Pearl said. "He's going to have his own feel and instincts at times, but we've been together for an awful lot of time."
Jones won't say just yet if he'll adopt Pearl's tradition of honoring late Tennessee coach Ray Mears by wearing an orange blazer when the Vols host Vanderbilt on Jan. 15.
Pearl won't be completely removed from his team until his suspension ends Feb. 8 at Kentucky. He's allowed to coach them on days in between games, will spend time with Jones and assistants Steve Forbes and Jason Shay scouting opponents, can travel to away games and will be on the sideline for a nonconference meeting with Connecticut on Jan. 22.
But when it comes to game days, Pearl isn't allowed to be around the team at all. On Saturday, he plans to watch from his Fayetteville hotel room with his wife Brandy and Tennessee associate athletics director Desiree Reed-Francois. He'll watch games in Knoxville from his home.
"Impossible. I don't want to think about it. Helpless, sad, embarrassed," Pearl said when asked how he thought it would feel to watch. "I've never missed a game in my entire career."