Among the things that make this Country great is that everyone gets a second chance. Let’s be honest, there isn’t a person in this world that didn’t screw something up at some point in life. Now, some of the screw ups are greater than others Some are truly life changing and others are just an obstacle that can be overcome
Along those lines, I introduce you to Bruce Pearl. Pearl is the head basketball coach at Auburn and he’s making the most of his second chance, although in his case it might be his third. Regardless, the next few months will tell the tale of whether Bruce Pearl has either redeemed himself or if he’s finally hit the end of his NCAA college coaching career.
First the good news. Auburn is 22-3 on the season and in first place by two games in the SEC. All the Tigers really need to do is win about three more games and Auburn will be the SEC Basketball Champion for the first time since 1998 – 99 when Cliff Ellis was the head coach. Auburn was the highest ranked second seed in the NCAA’s bracket preview released over the weekend. They began the year unranked the Associated Press Top 25 and for good reason. In Pearl’s three years at Auburn, the Tigers were below .500 the first two seasons and just 18-14 last year missing both the NCAA Tournament and the Top 25.
Long resembling a bit of a town crier, Pearl has Auburn fans excited about basketball. The cozy 9,000 seat Auburn arena has been sold out the entire season. Season tickets went quickly and the arena has become a place opposing teams don’t want to play with a decibel level comparable to Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum when the Hokies are good, line now.
And they are doing all of this without two of the best players who haven’t played a minute this season. And the reason they haven’t played a minute this season brings us to the bad part of the story.
In September Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person was indicted by the Federal Government in a wide ranging case of bribery. Person was accused of accepting money to divert Auburn players who would presumably be going pro to an Atlanta based agent. First of all, the mere fact that the feds got involved in college basketball is the ultimate in prosecutorial over-reaching. The problem with most U.S. Attorney’s Offices is that they are not so much concerned with justice as they are with showing everyone how big a shlong they have. When lawyers become assistant U.S. Attorney’s they sign up for a course called “Advanced Self-Righteousness” and it becomes so ingrained in them that there’s no vaccination to remove it. Okay, rant over.
Person – one of Auburn’s all-time basketball legends – was responsible for the recruitment of Austin Wiley. Taking no chances that Wiley – an NBA prospect the likes of which in all fairness don’t typically go to Auburn – might at some point be declared ineligible after playing 10 games a year ago, the Auburn compliance department has refused to clear him to play. Auburn basketball is a target of the FBI, and of course the NCAA is always lurking in the background because they have no interest in actually doing some investigation of their own and would rather just coat-tail off someone else.
Pearl has denied direct involvement and we must assume that’s true, but honestly if nothing else, he’s been guilty of a bad look. Auburn hired a law firm to conduct its own internal investigation of the matter. Pearl has refused to speak with them. Now, that could just be that he wants to concentrate on his team, or it could be that he knows something that’s career ending for him. If that’s the case, there is one person that won’t be the least bit surprised, former Illinois-Chicago Head Coach Jimmy Collins and fans of the University of Tennessee.
In the 1980s, Pearl was an assistant at Iowa to the legendary coach Dr. Tom Davis. Pearl was recruiting Chicago, Illinois based prospect Deon Thomas. Collins, an assistant to one of college basketball’s all-time great cheaters, Lou Henson at Illinois was also recruiting Thomas. Illinois landed Thomas. Pearl responded by calling Thomas and secretly recording a telephone conversation with him in which he asked Thomas if Illinois had promised him an SUV and Cash to come to Champaign. Thomas didn’t admit it, but didn’t deny either. Pearl turned the tapes over to the NCAA, which of course launched an investigation into Illinois basketball. Ultimately, the NCAA cleared both Collins and Illinois of any wrongdoing in the recruitment of Thomas, mostly because Thomas told the NCAA he didn’t receive any benefits and just told Pearl what Pearl wanted to hear to get rid of him. However, in digging into the Illinois program, the NCAA did find numerous other violations and put the school on probation.
Collins, who eventually became the head coach at Illinois-Chicago, never forgave Pearl and in fact was quoted in later years that you don’t forgive a snake. Pearl was blackballed from being a head coach and was exiled to the hinterlands of College Basketball, Division II. Pearl took his first head coaching job for very little pay at Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana. All he did was turn the Screaming Eagles into a National Division II power winning the National Championship in 1995.
Having turned around his first mistake, Pearl was hired as the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, his first Division I head coaching job. He made the Panthers an instant powerhouse in the Horizon League. Ironically enough both Pearl and Collins were head coaches in the Horizon for a period of time and not once spoke to each other or shook hands before or after a game. In 2005, Pearl put the Panthers in the Sweet 16 and that drew the attention of Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton, who needed a coach to replace the fired and highly overrated Buzz Peterson.
Pearl took a team that played uninspired and could barely get to .500 under Peterson to a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament in his first year. He recruited better players, turned Peterson’s players into much better players and in his six years at Tennessee went to 6 NCAA Tournaments, Two Sweet 16s and an Elite 8. His 2010 team would have made the Final 4 had Center Brian Williams not let a Michigan State player slip behind him what turned out to be the game winning points in the final seconds. Florida won back-to-back National titles in 2006 and 2007, but what they didn’t do during that time period was beat Tennessee.
His work off the court was legendary in Knoxville. Literally he would speak to any group that wanted him. He’d visit the school cafeterias and classrooms on game days to rally the students to attend the games that night. He started the outlive foundation for cancer in honor of one of his players Chris Lofton who was diagnosed and played most of a full season with testicular cancer. Tennessee’s oversized Thompson Boling Arena was filled to the rafters most nights and the basketball team’s success resulted in the University pouring millions of dollars to essentially remake the arena inside eliminating about 3,000 seats but adding new luxury boxes. Pearl oozed personality and had a quick wit. When asked by some boosters why his team had trouble shooting free throws, Pearl responded by saving he had no clue and you would think a Jew (Pearl is Jewish) would now how to coach something free.
But lurking in the background was Pearl’s undoing in Knoxville. While trying to recruit guard Aaron Craft from Ohio to Tennessee, Pearl permitted Craft and his family to attend a cookout at his West Knoxville home. It was an NCAA violation, Pearl knew it and actively tried to cover it up encouraging Craft’s father to lie when NCAA investigators zoomed in on Pearl. He also demanded his assistant coaches to lie to the NCAA. Those guys – not wanting to be branded traitors – did so going as far as to tell the NCAA that they didn’t know when and where a photograph of Pearl and Craft which was clearly taken at the cookout was actually taken. The NCAA is like the FBI. When they come asking questions of you, they already know the answer. Pearl coached his last year at Tennessee under the NCAA microscope and when his Tennessee team was just trashed by 30 points by Michigan in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Pearl was done in Knoxville, fired by Hamilton during an emotional shouting match one-day later.
The NCAA lowered the boom on him with a three-year show cause penalty. His assistants all received one-year show cause penalties. During their show cause period Pearl worked as a marketing person for Knoxville based H.T. Hackney, which supplies food and other products to convenience stores. His assistants Steve Forbes and Jason Shay were exiled to Junior College jobs, and longtime loyal aid Tony Jones was forced to coach High School ball in Alcoa, Tennessee, a suburb of Knoxville.
No sooner than his show cause was over did Auburn come calling with another chance. But, how long Pearl lasts on the plains is another story. In addition to the FBI probe and the inevitable NCAA investigation, Pearl is now working for an athletic director that didn’t hire him. Auburn is clearly on-guard for what’s coming while enjoying what is happening now, but even a deep run in the NCAA Tournament might not be enough. In recent years, the NCAA has taken direct aim at head coaches by holding them responsible for the transgressions of their assistants. If that happens, then it appears that for Bruce Pearl three strikes is indeed out, and that’s a shame because there’s no mistaking his ability to coach basketball.