Facing uncertain future with Vols, contrite Pearl hopes for the best
UT has already punished Pearl, but the NCAA could really drop the hammer
Pearl to SI.com: "I should be made an example of, and I am -- I'm embarrassed"
Pearl: "I hope that the things we did don't rise to the level of termination"
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?