Bruce Pearl has been a lot of things in a lot of rooms.
He's been a bare-chested, orange-painted cheerleader. He's been a fiery orator promising fans his team was about to go kick fill-in-the-blank's butt.
He's cajoled anyone who would listen to get out their wallet and contribute for cancer screenings. He's taken up the orange flag from a fallen football program and rallied booster crowds across the state and beyond.
Now he plays another role, his least comfortable one.
"There's an elephant in the room. I'm it,'' he said Wednesday. "So let's just deal with it.''
Pearl begins his sixth season as men's basketball coach at Tennessee with a cloud hovering. It's an NCAA-investigation cloud and it's hanging over Pearl's head as much as the program's.
Last month Pearl had to stand before a press conference and reveal he had not been truthful with NCAA investigators who raised questions about certain recruiting practices.
For this serious and baffling misjudgment, UT docked his pay $1.5 million over time and banned Pearl from off-campus recruiting for one year.
No one is sure when the other shoe falls. That would be likely further penalties levied by the NCAA against both the program and Pearl personally.
Some national media outlets and regional newspaper columnists suggest UT should terminate Pearl, that lying to the NCAA is too great a sin to tolerate. Pearl's boss says that's not going to happen.
"Those were significant penalties,'' Mike Hamilton said this week. "We wouldn't have done that if we didn't have the intention of him being our coach long term.''
Disputing reports that UT didn't fire Pearl because his contract makes doing so prohibitive, Hamilton doesn't expect the school's stance to alter.
"Short of significant findings, which we don't anticipate,'' Hamilton said.
Meanwhile, practice opens Friday on what should be another upbeat season on the court. An eyelash removed from reaching the Final Four last March, the Vols are deep and talented.
Pearl's task is to keep his team focused on what it can control - getting better, maximizing its potential - rather than what it cannot.
"We're dealing with it,'' Pearl said. "It's an ongoing process.
"So we put the cloud there but we have an opportunity through a lot of different things to have the sun come through that cloud and kind of break it up.''
Pearl asked his players' forgiveness. Then he added a warning:
"I made sure they understand that while I've let them down, don't think for one second that just because I made a mistake I'm going to be more tolerant.''
"That,'' junior Cam Tatum said with a smile, "is what your father is supposed to say.''
Steven Pearl thinks his coach/father is handling the ordeal remarkably well. Likewise, the team.
"We're working hard,'' Steven said. "Nobody's feeling sorry for him. Everyone's just busting their butt to make him look good.
"We have his back.''
He appreciates it.
"Yeah,'' Pearl said. "It's been tough in synagogue and church, and around some people I really respect.
"My discussion in an ethics class is going to be a little bit different and have a little more substance personally as far as that humility is concerned.''
Humility can shorten a man's stride. I wondered if a chastened Pearl could still deliver the same brash energy that jolted a lethargic program to life five years ago.
He conceded he may have to "tone it down a little" with some of the antics but that humility is a trait he has long embraced.
"The swagger is something you see on the floor or when I'm coaching,'' he said. "For people who know who I am, I'm still the same guy who was an assistant for 14 years and a division-two coach for a long time.
"But when I step back on the floor and the way my teams play, I hope the success we've had won't change. And, therefore, neither will the swagger.''
That should come as good news to an anxious fan base. The cloud is up there, no denying it.
In his time at UT, Pearl has been able to surmount obstacles presented by others. Now he has to face one of his own doing and bring back the sun.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.