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Pearl Survives the Twists and Turns

Panthers Coach Always Manages To Land on His Feet

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page D11

CLEVELAND, March 18 -- Attempting to inspire his University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee players, Coach Bruce Pearl has told them several stories over the years about his unusual and controversial coaching odyssey, but not all of them.

He has detailed how he thought was destined to work at Proctor & Gamble, not in coaching, after he graduated from Boston College. But he has not explained how his coaching future could have been destroyed before he even became a Division I head coach.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Bruce Pearl was once a mascot, then later a whistleblower who committed "coaching suicide." (Ron Kuntz -- Reuters)

"I don't know if I've shared that story," Pearl said Friday, "because I want them to play for their story."

The 12th-seeded Panthers have indeed scripted a compelling opening to the NCAA tournament, knocking off fifth-seeded Alabama to earn a matchup with Pearl's alma mater, fourth-seeded Boston College, in Saturday's second round of the Chicago Region. Should UWM (25-5) win Saturday at Wolstein Center, the Panthers could play another school that figured prominently in Pearl's coaching career, Illinois.

Fifteen years ago, Pearl cooperated with an NCAA investigation centering around the recruitment of Deon Thomas, who both Iowa, where Pearl worked as an assistant, and Illinois were courting.

Pearl tape-recorded a telephone conversation with Thomas, who had told Pearl that Illinois had offered him a Chevrolet Blazer and thousands of dollars for his commitment.

The NCAA investigation cleared Illinois regarding Thomas, but the school was sanctioned for other violations. Pearl, meantime, became the target of a backlash. ESPN's Dick Vitale told a national television audience at the time that Pearl had committed "coaching suicide" and the act of tape recording the conversation was "totally unethical."

Pearl, asked Friday if he thought that all future head coaching opportunities had vanished amid the scandal, said, "I wasn't worried about it at all," adding that he received little backlash within the coaching fraternity.

After 14 years working for Tom Davis, following him from Boston College to Stanford and then to Iowa, Pearl's career detoured in 1992 to Southern Indiana, where he spent nine seasons and won the 1995 Division II national championship.

He succeeded with the same zealous personality he has displayed in four seasons at UWM, which moved up to Division I in 1990. "Some people call him a car salesman a little," UWM forward Adrian Tigert said. "But he means [what he says]; he's a true person."

UWM has been one of the nation's most successful mid-major programs the past three seasons under Pearl. The Panthers' pressure-oriented system has led to three straight 20-win seasons and two berths in the NCAA tournament. But no previous success compared to Thursday's victory over Alabama. Milwaukee, Pearl said, is "absolutely on its head right now."

"The bars were crowded and people were spilling onto the streets," Pearl said. "And that's at 3 in the afternoon. The US Bank building downtown was lit up for two days wishing us good luck. The mayor was on campus watching the game with students."

Head coaching opportunities at power conference schools could emerge later this month. Asked about his options, Pearl said he "digs into" a community and makes roots, which doesn't mean he will necessarily bolt immediately after this year's tournament run.

At Boston College, there were no limits to his enthusiasm. During his senior year, Pearl wrote a long letter to Davis, who was in contention for the Stanford opening, begging him to stay at Boston College.

Davis then called Pearl, telling him to come over his house.

"As I'm driving down there, a light went on for the first time in four years and I said, 'My goodness gracious, he is leaving and he is asking me to go with him.' I never worked a day for BC or for Tom thinking I would get into coaching."

Pearl was slightly embarrassed, or amused, at the story leaking out this week that he dressed up as the Eddie the Eagle mascot during Boston College's 1981 first-round NCAA tournament game against Ball State because the regular Eagle was sick. Davis told him to run around the court and act like himself.

"They had a meeting after the game and they were going to throw me out" for flapping my wings on a step ladder behind the basket, Pearl said. "I broke like five NCAA rules."

UWM forward Joah Tucker did not know about the story until he heard it on ESPN on Thursday night and automatically assumed it must be false because it was so outlandish. Countered teammate Ed McCants, "[Pearl] will do what he needs to do for his team to win, from then until now."

Pearl is hesitant to put his team's tournament run in perspective, saying he only wants to "smell the roses when we get beat." But he dodges no questions about his past, believing the hardship has only strengthened his resolve.

"We've all got a chip on our shoulders," Pearl said, "but it's a positive one."

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