- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Texas Legends are making a hard push to hire former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl to replace Nancy Lieberman as coach of the D-League franchise, according to team sources.
After ongoing negotiations between the sides, Pearl told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that he will interview with the Legends on Thursday in Dallas. Pearl has also agreed to meet with the Dallas media on Thursday afternoon even if no deal is done.
"When the world champions call you have to listen," Pearl said. "Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have been great and I'm looking forward to talking to them."
Although Cuban's Dallas Mavericks don't directly own the Legends, Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson is the Legends' co-owner. The Frisco-based team, entering its second season in the fall, is the Mavericks' D-League affiliate.
Said one source: "The job is [Pearl's] if he wants it."
Coaching in the D-League is a logical step for Pearl in his quest to break into the NBA as an assistant coach. But Pearl is likely to be in high demand as a television analyst in college basketball after he was fired by Tennessee in the spring, which would presumably be a more lucrative field. But one source said the Legends "are finalizing an offer that will easily be the most lucrative deal in D-League history" in hopes of convincing Pearl to make an immediate return to coaching. The source said that the overall value of the package could approach $500,000.
The Legends, sources said, are likewise hoping that the opportunity to coach what arguably ranks as the D-League's most high-profile franchise -- in a certifiable NBA market and with the chance to work closely with the NBA's reigning champions -- will ultimately sway Pearl to take the job. He led the Volunteers to the NCAA tournament in each of his six seasons, making one trip to the Elite Eight and two to the Sweet 16.
Earlier this month, with the option of continuing as coach, Lieberman decided to move to the Legends' front office as assistant general manager. The women's basketball pioneer last season became the first woman to coach a men's team under the NBA's umbrella when she guided the expansion Legends to a spot in the playoffs.
Coaches in the D-League generally work on one-year contracts, but Lieberman had been promised when she took the job that she'd have the option of choosing whether to stay on as Legends coach or move into management after the 2010-11 season.
In her new role, Lieberman will work alongside Legends president of basketball operations Spud Webb and general manager Del Harris. The search for a successor began immediately because the D-League will continue to operate starting in October even if the NBA lockout has not been lifted.
Pearl was fired by Tennessee after six highly successful seasons when the school, after Pearl had been charged in September by the NCAA with unethical conduct, learned of additional violations committed on Sept. 14, 2010 and in March 2011. The NCAA has yet to rule on how long Pearl will be barred from college coaching.
Pearl went before the committee on infractions on June 11 in Indianapolis. Depending on the penalty Pearl receives, he might face restrictions in a new college job.
"Right now college is not an option for me," Pearl said Tuesday. "I've always enjoyed working with players and coaching them during their development."
Yahoo! Sports reported in May that the D-League's Maine Red Claws made a run at Pearl to replace Austin Ainge, son of Boston Celtics president of basketball Danny Ainge, before the Red Claws ultimately hired former University of Virginia coach Dave Leitao.
Nelson hired Lieberman to coach the Legends in November 2009 after a chance meeting at a Starbucks. Looking for someone with local ties and some name recognition in addition to the requisite basketball qualifications, Nelson has often said that he left the coffee-house chat with Lieberman convinced "that the best man for a job was a woman."
The presence of Lieberman and several players on the roster with an NBA pedigree -- Antonio Daniels, Joe Alexander, Sean Williams and, briefly, Rashad McCants -- established the Legends as the closest thing to a glamour franchise in the D-League last season. The highlight of a 24-26 campaign: Texas erased an eight-point deficit in the final 42 seconds of its regular-season finale against the Austin Toros on the road and eventually got the win in double overtime it needed to clinch a playoff berth.
Lieberman told ESPNDallas.com earlier this month that she debated the switch for weeks after the Legends' season ended in April, ultimately deciding that her long-held goal of "making it normal" for a woman to coach men at the game's highest level would have to be temporarily placed on hold for family reasons.
"I have one son and he has one senior year," Lieberman said, referring to son T.J. Cline. "It's not to say I'll never coach again, because T.J. goes to college in a year, but I felt like this was the right thing to do right now. I don't want to have any regrets as a mom. I want him to look up [when he plays high school basketball] and see me in the stands."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNDallas.com. Information from ESPN.com senior college writer Andy Katz was used in this report.
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