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Facing uncertain future with Vols, contrite Pearl hopes for the best

BROOKVILLE, N.Y. -- The brochure for the Best of the Best Coaching Clinic at Long Island Lutheran High on Sunday advertised a talk on "Pressure Defense" and "Special Situations." The double entendres were unintentional. The speaker was Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. The elephant in the gymnasium was the massive, self-imposed penalties levied on Pearl and his staff on Sept. 10, in anticipation of violations for allegedly hosting junior recruits in his home, making excessive phone calls and -- the big one -- lying to NCAA investigators.

"Can you guys hear me?" Pearl said to the dozens of coaches in the bleachers, mostly from local high schools. He opted not to use a microphone. Coaches who are effective speakers tend not to need amplification; effective speakers know that making light of an elephant is better than ignoring it.

"Actually," he said, "I'm here to talk about NCAA compliance."

Laughter erupted in the bleachers. Some of it was guffaws. Some of it sounded nervous. As it faded, Pearl told them, "I'm gonna be fine. Count me in your prayers."

Pearl was among friends in Brookville. The clinic was run by his childhood pal, Rich Slater, whom he met playing Pop Warner football and who is now the girls' basketball coach at Long Island Lutheran. (Slater and Pearl coached the U.S. women's and men's Maccabi Games teams, respectively, in the summer of '09.) Pearl spent 20 minutes shaking hands and posing for pictures after his lecture. The atmosphere was certainly less tense than his last public appearance, at a press conference in Knoxville to announce the self-imposed penalties: a salary reduction of $1.5 million over five years, a one-year ban on off-campus recruiting, beginning Sept. 24, and shorter bans for two of his assistants.

With the threat of larger NCAA sanctions -- large enough to get Pearl fired -- still looming, it begged the question, are you sure that the worst is not yet to come?

"I don't know," Pearl told SI.com in an interview following the clinic. "We did what we felt like we needed to do, to take steps proactively to penalize ourselves. I think the penalties were unprecedented in some scope. But we made mistakes. We provided false and misleading information to the NCAA.

"I should be made an example of, and I am -- I'm embarrassed. But I hope that the things we did don't rise to the level of termination, because we run a clean program. We got investigated in a lot of areas."

It's a curious thing, seeing one of the country's most prominent coaches in such a state of uncertain employment. After taking the Volunteers to the program's first Elite Eight last season -- despite having lost senior star Tyler Smith in January after an arrest -- Pearl enters 2010-11 with a team that should finish in the top three of the SEC. He took over at Tennessee in '05 and, during a 22-8 season, improbably incited a basketball craze on a football campus. Athletic director Mike Hamilton was widely praised for making such a visionary hire. Other ADs began looking for their own Bruce Pearls. In an introduction at the clinic, Slater talked about Pearl's Division II national championship at Southern Indiana, his Sweet 16 at UW-Milwaukee, and said he's "now leading the Tennessee Vols in the right direction."

Now all of that could come crumbling down on a lie.

Pearl can't speak about the NCAA investigation, but his problem, according to sources, is not really excessive phone calls, which apparently were at sub-Sampsonian levels, around 100 over a three-year span. The issue, as first reported by CBSSports.com last week, is the misleading information Pearl provided when questioned about a 2008 photo of recruit Aaron Craft -- then a high school junior on an unofficial visit along with fellow recruits Josh Selby and Jordan McRae -- at Pearl's Knoxville home in violation of NCAA rules. Pearl apparently told the NCAA he didn't recognize where the picture was taken, when, obviously, he did recognize his own house. He later wised up and turned himself in, but will that be enough to save his job?

Pearl would've been damned, to some degree, if he'd been honest about the photo from the start, but he's far more damned for having lied about it. The NCAA suspended former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant for the final 10 games of the 2009 season for lying about something that wasn't even a rules violation. Former Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson is currently serving a five-year show-cause penalty for, in part, lying to investigators about excessive phone calls. And the NCAA's incoming president, Mark Emmert, seems to be in an unforgiving mood, recently calling for harsher penalties against cheaters. Tennessee expects the NCAA's official response to come in December, and an ESPN examination of Pearl's contract revealed that the NCAA's findings would have to be "significant" to allow the school to fire him for cause.

What makes this such a juicy morality play is that it happened exactly 20 years after Pearl himself alleged that a rival was a cheater. Pearl was an Iowa assistant in 1990 when he broke college coaches' sacred, unspoken "honor among thieves" code, giving audiotapes and documentation to the NCAA outlining his belief that Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins had brokered a deal to land recruit Deon Thomas for $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer.

Those specific charges never stuck on Collins, but the resulting investigation found other violations that resulted in a postseason ban for the Illini. Pearl was essentially blacklisted from D-I head coaching jobs for a decade, and this became a central part of his biography as he was forced to prove himself in D-II. He knew the reaction to the Tennessee scandal would be cries of hypocrisy.

"As a result of what I went through before, I had a responsibility to run a clean program and do it the right way," he said to SI.com. "I've been doing this for 28 years. And I wished I could've not run afoul of the rules my whole career. So obviously, I'm disappointed in myself."

The attendees of Sunday's clinic (admission $125 at the door; lineup also featuring Villanova's Jay Wright and Fordham's Tom Pecora) seemed satisfied with Pearl as he focused on the on-court tactics that have defined his career, namely his famed 1-2-1-1 zone press. Using local players as props, he gave step-by-step instructions on how to implement the press and transition into a half-court man-to-man defense. He distributed packets with diagrams of the 1-2-1-1, gave out his office phone number at Tennessee, and took questions, all of which stayed within the boundaries of basketball.

One coach raised a hand and inquired about how Pearl conditions his players to press for 40 minutes without getting exhausted. "Do you do sprints?" the coach asked.

"Only for punishment," Pearl said, explaining that he prefers conditioning within the construct of basketball drills. He offered to show them an intense, full-court example that had a target outcome of 80 points scored in 120 seconds. Soon there was much rustling of paper, clicking of pens, and readying of cameras; apparently high school coaches are starved for new practice drills.

"This one is from Kelvin Sampson," Pearl said as he arranged the clinic's player-pawns, seemingly oblivious of the irony. "We call it Oklahoma."

The first time Sampson was hit with NCAA sanctions over excessive phone calls, in 2006, he received a one-year ban on off-campus recruiting like the one Pearl begins this week. Sampson was just beginning his Indiana tenure then, and he actually weathered the ban, still managing to lure five-star shooting guard Eric Gordon to Bloomington. But Sampson no longer teaches that drill to collegians; he was fired in February 2008 after misleading NCAA investigators about a second round of phone calls.

Pearl was standing on the court where the highest-rated recruit he's ever landed at Tennessee, five-star power forward Tobias Harris, played as a member of Long Island Lutheran's state title team in '08-09. He called Harris the "most mature kid I've ever coached," and clearly can't wait to showcase him this season in the Vols' starting lineup. But the specter of sanctions could very well hamper Pearl's ability to secure further commitments from elite recruits. Prime Class of 2011 target Adonis Thomas, a five-star small forward from Memphis who visited Knoxville the weekend after Pearl's apologetic press conference, told SNY that while he's considering the Vols, the NCAA investigation is a "problem."

Tennessee slyly set the start date on Pearl's recruiting ban at Sept. 24, allowing him to visit high schoolers this month, including a trip to Memphis to see Thomas. A genuinely harsh penalty would've begun immediately on Sept. 10, but this way, the Vols could quietly attempt to maintain control of their next two recruiting classes before going on house arrest. (Both Chris Jones and Kevin Ware, Tennessee's two committed 2011 prospects, recently vowed that they're still coming to Knoxville.)

Pearl discussed control in a different context on Sunday. "One thing you can control is the pace," he told the clinic, referring to the speed at which his teams play by pressing and fastbreaking off turnovers, and conversely, running a more methodical flex offense in half-court situations. His brand of basketball was a shock to the SEC when he arrived in '05, and he remains one of the few coaches who's willing to press the majority of a game. "It's important," he said, "to play a different style."

A key to his 1-2-1-1 press, he explained, is that when opposing guards are near opposite sidelines on the inbounds play, the ballside defender stays in "intercept" position, outside his man, while weakside defender stays in denial position, up and inside the passing lane, with the backboard preventing the ball from being thrown over the top. If the ballside guard receives the pass, the inbounds-man's defender immediately comes over to trap. Scores of Tennessee's turnovers are created out of that trap.

After outlining the basics of the 1-2-1-1, Pearl covered variations, including switching to a 2-2-1 with no one guarding the inbounder. He offered to show how the zones adapted to certain offensive strategies, asking the coaches, "How do guys break your pressure?"

One inquiry was about a "tandem" or "two-up, two-back" set, where a team puts a guard at each elbow and a pair of forwards at opposite ends of the midcourt line.

"A lot of people break us [like that]," Pearl said, and then repositioned the players to introduce a tactical wrinkle. "When we see two-up, two-back, we'll kind of break the rules a little bit."

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