‘If you win, there’s always another job’

Bruce Pearl should be in coaching purgatory for NCAA transgressions. So how is he on Auburn's sideline?

Associated Press

Numbers aren’t necessary. Ignore the Wikipedia page. Even Bruce Pearl’s previous accolades fail to edify readers about his coaching prowess.

His brilliance isn’t defined by turning a moribund Tennessee program into the nation’s No. 1 team or to rally a fan base that cared about football first, second and third. It goes beyond that he took the Vols to the cusp of the Final Four; or that he got Milwaukee into the Sweet 16; or that he made Southern Indiana into a Division II powerhouse.

All you need to know about Bruce Pearl is that, in 2015, he is coaching. And not as a superfluous assistant or at a remote program.

He’s at Auburn, an SEC school. He was the most significant hire of last year’s coaching carousel, one that included heavy-hitters like Buzz Williams, Cuonzo Martin and Steve Wojciechowski.

And it all happened despite the fact that Bruce Pearl has committed two coaching Cardinal sins and was hired while still serving the NCAA’s version of a jail time.

* * *

Tennessee fired Bruce Pearl for telling a lie about a cookout.

It was Sept. 20, 2008, a college football Saturday that featured a visit from No. 4 Florida and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Tim Tebow. The Gators put a 30-6 whooping on the Vols, as Tebow threw touchdown passes to Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez.

Attending a Vols game is an incredible experience. More than 100,000 people (usually wearing the same color) converge on a single location after spending hours eating and drinking and trying to prove that their town — their school — has the best pregame and tailgate traditions. That’s why you see so many basketball recruits take official and unofficial visits coinciding with a big football weekend; being able to offer that kind of an atmosphere on every Saturday in the fall is a nice recruiting tool to have, and Pearl is far from the only coach to take advantage of it.

On this particular Saturday in Knoxville, Pearl happened to have three high school juniors making unofficial visits to campus. Recruits are allowed to take five official visits beginning midway through their junior year in high school, in which the coaching staff can roll out the red carpet, covering flights and meals and hotels for the player and his family for the duration of their 48-hour trip. The same recruits are allowed as many unofficial visits as they’d like, but there are much more stringent rules on those: The families must pay their own way, they must pay for their own meals and they must pay for their own transportation while on campus. And as high school juniors, they’re not allowed to meet with the team or the staff off campus, and they’re certainly not allowed to visit the house of the head coach.

That’s where the trouble started for Pearl. He hosted a barbecue at his house after the game, inviting the team and the coaching staff over. He also invited the those three unofficial visitors — former Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, former Ohio State guard Aaron Craft and former Kansas guard (and at the time, Tennessee-commit) Josh Selby — to his house.

They came.

Pearl must have known he was committing multiple violations — he was feeding them and having contact with them off campus, and current players gave two of the recruits a ride to his house — but he also warned the players and their families that their attendance was against NCAA rules.

At some point during that barbecue, a picture was snapped of Pearl, in his kitchen, standing with Craft and the wife of assistant coach Jason Shay. A year later, the NCAA opened an investigation into Tennessee’s basketball program regarding the number of phone calls and text messages that they had sent to recruits, a rule that has since been changed. But during the process of looking into those calls and those texts, investigators stumbled upon that picture.

On June 14, 2010, Pearl and each of his three assistants — Shay, Steve Forbes and Tony Jones — were asked about the picture during an interview with Joyce Thompson, one of the NCAA’s lead investigators.

They lied, despite knowing almost a week prior to sitting down with the NCAA that the picture existed.

“Have you, and I apologize, this is a grainy photo that we received in our office, and I received this through e-mail just to let you know,” Thompson asked Pearl, according to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations sent to the university and obtained by the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “But, um, we received this picture and it purports to be you with Aaron Craft. Do you have any recollection of that incident or maybe where this picture was maybe taken from and …”

“That’s Aaron,” Pearl said. “That’s me. I don’t really know where that’s taken.”

“OK,” Thompson said. “Any place on campus but you don’t know?”

“Do you recognize the woman that’s in the picture?” Mike Glazier, Tennessee’s lead attorney, asked Pearl, referring specifically to Shay’s wife.

“No, I really don’t,” Pearl said.

“Coach,” Glazier asked, “Is that in your home any place?”

“No,” Pearl said.

After bowing out of the 2011 NCAA tournament with a 30-point loss to Michigan in the opening round, Tennessee fired Pearl.

* * *

Auburn basketball is irrelevant. It has been for more than a decade. They haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2003 and haven’t finished above .500 since 2009. They haven’t won an SEC regular-season title since 1999. They haven’t won an SEC tournament since 1985. But irrelevance doesn’t mean a program cannot be turned around; Tennessee was more or less irrelevant when Pearl took over, and his success with the Vols is one of the reasons that Auburn made him a priority.

Sports fans are sports fans. College towns, particularly those in the south, love their school. And college kids? They’re worried as much about the party as they are the game. Do they need a reason beyond “the team is actually not that terrible this year” to get liquored up and spend a couple hours in the student section, heckling and cheering and taking selfies and simply enjoying the hell out of their time in college?

Pearl recognizes this. He saw it in Tennessee, and he sees it in Auburn.

(Associated Press)

“It is a powerhouse in intercollegiate athletics. That was what was attractive,” Pearl told NBCSports.com last month. “There’s a perception here. 2010, Cam Newton’s winning a national championship. 2013, Gus Malzahn is playing for a national championship. Tim Hudson [pitched] in the World Series [this year]. Jason Dufner, who won the PGA a couple years ago, lives in Auburn and walked on at Auburn. Charles Barkley. Frank Thomas. Bo Jackson. [Current Auburn assistant] Chuck Person. It’s here. It’s now. It’s not too recent history.”

The way Pearl tells it — and believe me, he’s as good of a salesman as there is in the coaching business; he had me ready to look into getting an advanced degree from Auburn — irrelevant is the wrong word to use to describe Auburn basketball. Dormant is better. A sleeping giant. An SEC power just waiting for someone to tap into their potential. If anyone can do that, it’s Pearl.

All it took was a matter of hours for him to prove it.

When Pearl stepped off of the private plane at Auburn airport on March 18, the same day that the news broke that he would be taking the job, he was greeted by a mob of fans and reporters on the tarmac. There, just 20 feet and 10 seconds removed from the plane that brought the Boston native into the fathoms of the deep south, he proceeded to partake in a combination mosh-pit and group-hug with those fans, holding an impromptu press conference — or pep rally — before heading off to begin his rebuild:

For the first time in more than a decade, there’s a feeling of excitement around Auburn hoops. Last year, the Tigers averaged just 5,823 tickets sold per game, a number that was second-to-last in the SEC (ignoring that fewer still actually stepped foot into Auburn Arena). It was the first season since moving into the venue that Auburn did not have a single sell-out.

This season, the Tigers sold out their season tickets for the first time — prior to Pearl’s first game.

And they’re not even good yet. Auburn is 12-14 overall and 4-9 in the SEC after Tuesday night’s loss to Alabama. On Saturday, the Tigers head to Rupp Arena to take their shot at ending Kentucky’s undefeated season.

So yes, Pearl still has some work to do, but the on-court product is improving as the hype surrounding the program has reached unprecedented levels, at least compared to recent history.

“The basketball program has been down the last 11 years,” Pearl said. “It’s been a struggle, but there’s history and tradition here.

“We’re not trying to do something that hasn’t been done. We’re just trying to do something that hasn’t been done in a while.”

It’s not only the fans that are getting excited about the program, the recruits are as well. Since arriving at Auburn, Pearl has landed highly regarded transfers (K.C. Ross-Miller, Antoine Mason, Kareem Canty), a top five junior-college recruit (Cinmeon Bowers) and a combined four four-star recruits in this recruiting class (Trayvon Reed) and the Class of 2015 (Horace Spencer, Nu Williams, Danjel Purifoy).

That’s a lot of talent for any coach to land, but Pearl did it despite spending his first five months as Auburn’s head coach unable to do any kind of recruiting, waiting for his show-cause penalty to expire. A show-cause penalty, the harshest reprimand the NCAA can give to a coach, is exactly what it sounds like. If a school wants to hire a coach while he’s serving his show-cause — Pearl’s penalty was for three years and ended in August 2014 — they have to appear in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions and literally “show cause” to hire that coach. It’s not an easy process, and few programs believe it is worth the time and the effort to make that hire, turning the penalty into a de facto suspension. Even if the coach is hired, he’ll be forced into reduced responsibilities with limits on his ability to recruit, which is arguably the most important part of being a college coach.

Pearl?

He couldn’t scout players. He couldn’t travel to the games Auburn targets were playing. He couldn’t talk to recruits on the phone or tweet at them. He couldn’t even say hello when they came to campus to visit, often times returning to his Knoxville home just to play it safe.

“It was really challenging. I had not laid my own eyes on any of these guys,” Pearl said.

Auburn built up all of that recruiting momentum despite the fact that their head coach, the guy that the school will now pay $2.2 million-per-year to recruit and promote and rebuild, had zero involvement until Aug. 24, well after the all-important April and July live-periods.

That’s why Pearl was the most significant coaching hire last spring.

* * *

The worst thing that a coach can do during an NCAA investigation is get caught in a lie.

A simple and unavoidable byproduct of the way the system is setup is that the NCAA’s enforcement arm is forced to hand out extreme punishments when someone being investigated is caught lying to them. The NCAA doesn’t have any subpoena power. They can’t force anyone to talk under oath, and they can’t force anyone to talk that isn’t affiliated with any NCAA member.

It limits the association’s investigative ability, which is why they are willing to drop the hammer if they do catch someone doing something other than telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant missed the final 10 games of his collegiate career at Oklahoma State, a season when he was considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was asked by NCAA investigators about a visit he had with Deion Sanders, one in which they worked out and ate lunch, which Bryant paid for. Neither is an NCAA violation, but Bryant, fearing that he had committed one, lied to investigators.

He was declared ineligible.

Brad Greenberg learned this the hard way. Back in 2010-11, the former Radford coach had a player named Masse Doumbe ruled ineligible after he spent time playing with a club team in France where one player — not Doumbe — was getting paid. He was suspended for 21 games and not allowed to travel with the team on road trips. During Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, instead of leaving Doumbe alone on campus, Greenberg allowed him to travel and eat with the team, which is against NCAA rules.

Greenberg lied about it. He asked members of his staff and other student-athletes to lie about it. He was fired, and when the NCAA completed their investigation, given a five-year show-cause penalty.

Think about the violations committed here.

Pearl had some high school kids over for a team barbecue. Bryant had lunch and worked out with one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Greenberg allowed a suspended player to travel with the rest of his team.

Combined, those three lost a total of nine seasons in college.

* * *

Bruce Pearl was once thought of as one of college basketball’s brightest young stars, named by Basketball Weekly as one of the nation’s best Division I assistant coaches in 1988. That he eventually worked his way to the highest rungs of the collegiate coaching ladder, donning orange blazers and winning SEC championships while banking seven figures annually, is not something that would have surprised anyone during Pearl’s early years in the business.

But instead of climbing that ladder, Pearl found himself stuck in the Division II ranks for nine years, better-known as basketball purgatory for a coach on the rise. Instead of nationally televised games and massive recruiting budgets and chartered flights around the country, Pearl was winning titles while riding a bus from Southern Indiana’s Evansville campus to the midwestern towns of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Quincy, Illinois, trips that often took seven or eight hours.

He had been blackballed from the business.

That’s what happens when you get labeled a snitch.

“There’s kind of an unspoken rule in the business where if another staff does stuff, you try to talk to the guy,” one top 25 head coach top NBCSports.com. “You don’t ruin his career. You don’t turn somebody in.”

Back in the late-1980s, when Pearl was still a hotshot, 20-something assistant coach at Iowa, he began recruiting a kid named Deon Thomas. At the time, Thomas was the best player in Chicago and a soon-to-be McDonald’s All-American, a 6-foot-8 forward that played at the same Simeon Career Academy that also produced Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Nick Anderson, Ben Wilson and Bobby Simmons.

Everyone wanted him, but it was Iowa, according to Pearl, that had landed a verbal commitment. And it was also Iowa that eventually lost out on Thomas, as he wound up following a pair of former high school teammates to Champaign to play for Illinois; he’d eventually become the program’s all-time leading scorer, a record he still holds, and a top-30 pick in the NBA Draft.

That all happened in the spring of 1989, but it was months earlier, in December of 1988, when Pearl began to suspect that Illinois’ recruitment of Thomas was not on the up-and-up. With the blessing of his head coach Tom Davis and Iowa’s athletic administration, Pearl began recording conversations with Thomas and taking notes on what the player told him, things that could eventually get Illinois hit with NCAA recruiting violations.

He eventually wrote a 10-page memo drafted for his superiors and, years later, obtained by Deadspin that detailed everything Thomas had told him, from the mundane — talking with the player after a game, illegal in-home visits, and, ironically enough, meals off campus — to the spectacular. Pearl accused Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins of giving Thomas $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer in exchange for signing a letter of intent.

His proof?

One of those recorded phone conversations, which included Thomas confirming that Collins had made the offer.

Pearl turned all of this information over to the NCAA, and while the allegations regarding the cash and the car were never proven, Illinois was hit with a few major violations. That earned the athletic department a repeat violator tag, stemming from some football violations, and the basketball team a one-year postseason ban.

Serving as the NCAA’s whistleblower is bad enough, but recording phone conversations may be even worse. The conversations that are held within the privacy of a coaching staff, particularly one at that level, are not always, shall we say, compliant with NCAA regulations. There’s a certain trust that goes into that side of the business, that same top-25 head coach explained, that things that get discussed amongst the staff stay amongst the staff. They don’t want their strategies, particularly ones that violate NCAA bylaws, getting discussed in public, and they certainly don’t want to have to be concerned about a recording of them showing up on SportsCenter one morning.

It all comes back to trust, and Pearl had broken his with seemingly all of the coaching community.

“There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t appreciate that,” the coach said.

* * *

So why, if he’s not trustworthy and a cheater that lies to the NCAA, is Bruce Pearl still coaching?

“Because he wins,” the head coach of another top-25 program told NBCSports.com. “There’s a saying: ‘Don’t get fired for losing. Get fired for cheating.’

“If you win, there’s always another job.”

And if there’s anything that Pearl has done throughout his career, it’s win. In 19 seasons as a head coach, Pearl has won at least 20 games in 17 of them. He’s never finished below .500 in league play — ever — and the only year he didn’t win at least 10 games in conference was his final season at Tennessee; he was suspended for the first eight games of SEC play that year.

(Associated Press)

No one knows about Pearl’s winning ways better than Auburn, which sat idly by as he turned Tennesse into a national power. It’s not a coincidence that he was their first call once Tony Barbee was fired.

According to Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, the decision to hire Bruce Pearl hinged on his belief that Pearl’s show-cause penalty was the result of a mistake, a bad decision made at an inopportune time, a lie told in the heat of the moment. Pearl had to make him believe.

“I went right at him with the questions of lying to the NCAA,” Jacobs said of the interview, which took place late on a Friday night in a hotel room. “He sat there and looked at me with tears in his eyes and expressed his remorse for doing it and told me the entire story. Took probably 20-25 minutes. When he was through telling me the story and talking about the pain and the hurt that he and his family had gone through, I knew that he was remorseful and he had repented, and I knew that it wasn’t a character flaw. He had made a mistake.”

But it wasn’t really that simple.

Pearl is a master dealing with the media, and in the wake of what happened with Thomas, Pearl branded himself as the de facto spokesman for Coaches That Don’t Cheat. The reason that he risked his career to turn in a colleague that beat him for a recruit wasn’t selfish or self-serving, it was because he had to do what’s right. The way he told it, over and over again, was that he couldn’t sit idly by and allow another program to break NCAA rules when he knew about it.

And then, he not only was caught breaking those rules, he lied about it to the NCAA’s investigators.

“I have been a very public advocate for playing by the rules,” Pearl said back in November of 2010, when his eight-game SEC suspension was announced. “When you don’t play by the rules, these are the things that can happen.”

On Sept. 10, 2010, Pearl delivered his tearful apology to the Tennessee faithful, a press conference where he came clean about the violations he had committed and the lies he had told. He was admitting his mistakes, making himself the sacrificial lamb.

Pearl had learned his lesson, or so he wanted every one to believe.

Four days later, according to the notice of allegations that the NCAA sent Tennessee, on Sept. 14th, Pearl and assistant coach Tony Jones met with former UCLA guard Jordan Adams for two-to-three minutes at Oak Hill Academy, Adams’ high school. Adams was a junior at the time, which made the visit a clear violation of NCAA rules.

“It really showcases in my mind what the NCAA is all about,” Collins, who remained at Illinois until 1996 before taking over the Illinois-Chicago program for 14 years, told Deadspin last year when Pearl was first hired at Auburn, “and that is not much of nothing.”

“I always thought [Bruce] was smart, in terms of basketball, but he is also smart in winning people over. That was one of his strengths. But the NCAA, which preaches sportsmanship, and good citizenship, which preaches the way you do the kids — where if the kid talks or shakes a hand, you may not let him play for a year — and then you turn your back on some of the other stuff that goes on, because a guy wins games.”