October 21, 2010

Pearl's Vols try to overcome distractions

HOOVER, Ala. - Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has spent his entire adulthood learning how to make the right calls with the clock winding down. He wasn't nearly as prepared for the calls he had to make the past few weeks.

Over and over, Pearl had to talk to friends and colleagues about the errors in judgment that cost him $1.5 million in salary and have threatened the long-term future of Tennessee's program.

He can't forget his conversations with family members or an apologetic call he made to SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

"That's a tough call," Pearl said Thursday at his SEC Tip Off media session. "That's somebody I have great respect for. This is somebody I've really tried to work hard to make Tennessee something that he can be proud of in the SEC. It was very disappointing. I've got a lot of work to do to continue doing the good stuff because I let him down."

Perhaps the most difficult moment of Pearl's miserable offseason came when he brought his entire team together to ask each player for his forgiveness. How do you demand the most from your players after you've already admitted your own personal failures?

That dilemma underscores why this season represents the toughest challenge of Pearl's career.

"It's tough because I'm supposed to lead by example," he said. "When you don't, it's a setback. You've got to ask them for forgiveness because I let them down. I have to make sure they understand I'm not going to expect any less of them because I made a mistake. They understand that."

Pearl could have spent the offseason celebrating the Vols' first appearance in a NCAA tournament regional final. He instead was admitting to recruiting violations that have threatened to shatter everything he has built in his five seasons in Knoxville.

As part of Tennessee's self-imposed penalties, Pearl received a one-year ban on off-campus recruiting that began Sept. 24; he also had his salary reduced $1.5 million over five years. Tennessee officials are awaiting word on whether the NCAA will hand out further sanctions.

Pearl admitted providing false information to NCAA officials who interviewed him about charges that he had made excessive phone calls to recruits. He also reportedly denied having former recruit Aaron Craft at his Knoxville home in violation of NCAA rules, but NCAA investigators had a photograph indicating otherwise.

Pearl's role in this mess was particularly surprising because he had served as a whistleblower earlier in his career. Pearl was working as an Iowa assistant two decades ago when he secretly taped a conversation with Deon Thomas in which the highly touted prospect allegedly said Jimmy Collins - an Illinois assistant at the time - had offered him $80,000 and a car to sign with the Illini. Pearl sent the tape to the NCAA. Although Thomas denied the charges and Collins was exonerated, Illinois was placed on two years' probation for recruiting violations.

"What goes around comes around," Collins told USA Today after learning of Pearl's violations.

There's no getting around the hypocrisy of the situation, and Pearl attempted to explain himself Thursday.

"You've got a responsibility to play by the rules, and you have a responsibility that when others don't, sometimes actions need to be taken," Pearl said. "I can live with what I've done in the past and the mistakes I've made now. ... I'm 50. I got into college coaching maybe when I was 18 [as a student assistant at Boston College]. You do the math. And we've done it right, for the most part, for a long time."

Pearl still has the support of his players.

"We're a family," junior guard Scotty Hopson said. "He's not only a coach but a father figure. Whenever he's down, we just find ways to pick him up."

The Volunteers can't afford any division as they attempt to replace departed starters Wayne Chism, Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince while competing in the talent-laden SEC East. The division features such balance that four of it six teams (preseason favorite Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia) earned first-place votes in the SEC media poll.

Pearl thinks he has a team that can contend for the title. He says this probably is the deepest team he's ever had at Tennessee, which is ranked 20th in the preseason coaches' poll. He believes Hopson is ready to assert himself as a go-to player. He's confident 6-foot-10 senior forward Brian Williams can develop into a dominant rebounder. He calls 6-8 freshman forward Tobias Harris the hardest worker he's ever coached. And he says this team could be physically tougher than the squad that went 28-9 and lost by one point to Michigan State in last season's Midwest Regional final.

Pearl acknowledges the NCAA investigation has caused a distraction, but he doesn't believe it has hindered his preparation for the upcoming season. In fact, he said it has made him savor his time with the team even more.

"It's been therapy to get back on the court," Pearl said. "This is my favorite time of the year."

Have his players noticed any change in Pearl? Has he allowed the cloud hanging over the program to let his mind wander?

"Not at all," Hopson said. "He's a little bit more aggressive and fierce now in the way he's coaching, but he's always been Coach Pearl."

Nor do opposing coaches expect the lingering investigation to hinder Tennessee's performance this season.

"Knowing Bruce, he will focus on his team and let that other stuff take care of itself," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "That's what I would think, knowing him. He'll be focused on, 'How do I get my team better?'

"He's got a good team. He'll focus on them."

Pearl understands what's at stake. His inability to make off-campus recruiting visits certainly won't help the Vols attract elite players. Pearl is counting on Tennessee's success on the court to keep the program in the minds of recruits, even if he isn't able to visit them in their homes.

"We have an opportunity ... to continue to maintain our status as a top-25 program," Pearl said. "I'm confident that in spite of some unparalleled sanctions, we'll be able to maintain our competitiveness, we'll continue to recruit through the restrictions and maintain our level of success."

Pearl clearly is more comfortable discussing the challenges of the present than rehashing his mistakes of the past. His reputation already has taken a major hit. He still doesn't know whether more penalties are on the way. All he can do now is admit his mistake and look forward to the future.

"It's been tough because I am proud of a lot of the things that we've done in intercollegiate athletics," Pearl said. "This is not one of them. You have to move forward, know the good outweighs the bad and continue to focus on the opportunity to make a difference in these young people's lives. It's not broke. What we do has worked, and it's worked well for a long time."

Pearl can only hope the NCAA agrees.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.




 

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