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
"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,
With the threat of larger NCAA sanctions -- large enough to get Pearl fired -- still looming, it begged the question,
"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
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
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
What makes this such a juicy morality play is that it happened exactly
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
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
Pearl was standing on the court where the highest-rated recruit he's ever landed at Tennessee, five-star power forward
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
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."