ROSEMONT, Ill. - With a completely straight face, Bruce Pearl told a roomful of reporters yesterday that with his Wisconsin-Milwaukee sneaking into the Sweet 16 to face top-ranked Illinois, "There are so many great story lines on this team, I don't even know where to begin."
OK, Coach. How about the story line where you ratted out a Big Ten competitor 16 years earlier, helped get it on probation, nearly ruined a coaching colleague's career and got yourself exiled to the backwaters of the game, only to return to the big time, lead a Cinderella team into the NCAA tournament, pull off a pair of upsets and face ... the school you ratted out all those years ago?
Could you begin there, please?
"I knew that at some point, it was going to come around," Pearl acknowledged, beginning a brave attempt to address the signature moment of his coaching career while avoiding the excruciating details - especially with a fellow head coach and former Big Ten assistant, Illinois' Bruce Weber, due to answer similar questions soon afterward.
"The thing I'm glad about is that it hasn't become a distraction," Pearl said. "You guys [in the media] have done a very good job of understanding what the major story lines of this game are."
True enough, Pearl and Weber have bigger fish to fry tonight, when Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois play at Rosemont's Allstate Arena for a berth in the Chicago Regional final. After all, Illinois has essentially two home games to win to reach the Final Four, and the 12th-seeded, mid-major Panthers, victors over Alabama and Boston College, stand in their way.
But neither coach deluded himself about the throbbing subplot, how fate brought together Illinois and what might be its sworn enemy - the man who, as an assistant at Iowa in 1989, secretly taped a conversation with a big-time recruit that spurred an NCAA investigation that found major recruiting violations and led to a one-year postseason ban and two years' probation.
Weber was an assistant at Purdue back then, and as he pointed out, his players "were in kindergarten." But fans of the No. 1-seeded Illini, who have planned their team's appearance here all season, have long memories, and the reaction to Pearl in the flesh will be extreme.
Pearl faced the plunge into an unpleasant past with wry humor and cleverly deflected questions about the expected crowd reaction tonight. "Will there be a little more noise because who's the coach of the opponent? Sure it will; I understand that," Pearl said.
"But I think there will be some fans from Oklahoma State and some folks from Arizona. And my question is, do they want to play the Fighting Illini in the next round, or the Panthers of Milwaukee?" That drew a chuckle from the audience. Pearl can perform as well as he can coach.
Yet notably absent in Pearl's monologue was an apology, any show of regret, any change in his belief that he did the right thing by exposing the dirt at a competing program. Illinois paid dearly, and so did the Illinois assistant who was implicated deepest, Jimmy Collins.
He likely lost a shot at the Illinois head coaching job because of the investigation, and he has nursed his grudge ever since, at least twice a year the past four years as a coach at Illinois-Chicago in the same conference as Pearl. The two still refuse to shake hands after games.
Even Weber, while emphasizing yesterday how distant he and his players were from any of this, and how he hoped this was behind everybody, admitted that he wondered, "Maybe one coach went too far. It's not for me to say."
While Pearl stopped short of even addressing it that much yesterday, he did tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier in the week, "That stuff is tough to go through. But occasionally it's got to happen in the NCAA for everybody to fly right."
Pearl might have left any feelings of remorse behind during his own years in exile, the nine years he coached at Division II Southern Indiana starting in 1992, in the middle of Illinois' probation.
It's what he was left with after, it seems clear, he was blackballed for breaking not the NCAA's rules, but that code so familiar in sports, the one being applied to Jose Canseco for airing baseball's dirty laundry about steroids. In the colleges, cheating is frowned upon, but reporting a fellow coach or school for cheating carries even more serious repercussions.
One man's whistleblower, bravely taking a stand against corruption, is another man's snitch, breaking one of those unwritten rules that lawbreakers keep unwritten for obvious reasons.
Pearl wasn't the only one to pay a price, but he paid one. Now he has made it back to Division I, taken a sleeper team deeper than anyone expected - and finds his past staring him in the face, not to mention ringing in his ears.