Have you ever heard of JP Smith?
If you have, it kind of ruins the whole premise of this story.
If you haven’t, then allow me to introduce to you the man and the infuriating injustice in which he unwittingly became a central figure.
JP Smith is a professional tennis player who, at age 29, has probably seen his best days on the court. The native of Australia rose to 108th in the world, but never won a tournament and never made a deep run in a major that would have captured the attention of even devout tennis fans.
Despite that, he was a good college player, consistently finding his way into the Top 10 in the country during his last two years at the University of Tennessee. Still, he never won a national championship as a singles player or as a doubles player or as a member of a national championship team.
So what’s so remarkable about JP Smith?
It’s the fact that his name will forever be the Southeastern Conference’s perfect fit for the old “Sesame Street” skit and song “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.”
See if you can spot the differences:
2007 David Price, Vanderbilt baseball;
2008 Tim Tebow, Florida football;
2009 Tim Tebow, Florida football;
2010 Mark Ingram, Alabama football;
2011 JP Smith, Tennessee tennis;
2012 Anthony Davis, Kentucky basketball;
2013 Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M football.
One answer would be that the list contains six millionaires, plus JP Smith.
Another would be that there are six nationally known sports figures, plus JP Smith.
Another would be that there are six national players of the year in their sport, plus JP Smith.
But there is one list where Smith fits perfectly among those great athletes. That’s where the injustice comes in.
The list above is of actual winners of the Southeastern Conference Male Athletes of the Year.
If only there had been a great athlete in the SEC in 2010-11 who could have fit comfortably between Manziel, Davis, Ingram, Tebow and Price. Maybe a Heisman Trophy winner who was undefeated as a starting quarterback and led his team to the national championship. Maybe a football player from that year who was selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. Maybe someone whose never-before-seen style of play inspired comparisons to Superman.
Of course, there was. That player was Cam Newton, the Auburn quarterback whose single season at Auburn in 2010-11 was closer to perfection than any player who has ever played the game.
But the league’s 14 athletics directors decided Smith was more deserving of the conference’s top award than Newton.
The decision was ludicrous at the time. Seven years later it’s even clearer how ridiculous it was.
Although the league does not have to justify its selection, it’s clear Newton was blackballed because of the pay-for-play allegations that swirled around him and his father. It’s worth noting the allegations never resulted in Newton missing a single play and never led to any NCAA or SEC penalties for any school.
That brings us to the current college basketball season. Nobody is saying Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is going to be as historically insignificant as JP Smith, but the current injustice is comparable.
At the end of the basketball regular season, the SEC named its all-conference team, which included the SEC Coach of the Year. Barnes, who did a terrific job in leading the Volunteers to a co-championship in the SEC regular season, won the award.
His Volunteers tied with Auburn but lost the tiebreaker because of the Tigers’ win in Knoxville early in the conference season.
That leads us to the JP Smith-level injustice. The 2017-18 SEC Basketball Coach of the Year was actually Bruce Pearl. Period. It doesn’t matter what some biased voters said.
Pearl took a team that was the worst in the SEC last year, lost his two best players to suspension during the preseason, lost his top interior player to injury during the championship stretch and still won the school’s first basketball championship in 19 years.
Pearl is no longer the coach at Tennessee because of recruiting violations that led to him being fired. His championship season at Auburn has included a cloud created by the FBI investigation that led to the arrest of his top assistant, Chuck Person, and the season-long suspension of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. It could be months or years before we know if Pearl had any involvement in wrongdoing that would lead him to be in trouble with the NCAA again.
That discussion is for a later time. Today, we should be celebrating Pearl as the SEC Coach of the Year.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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