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Pearl Has Converted The Faithful in Tennessee
A Long, Hard Journey
Training with his players was a habit Pearl learned as a hardscrabble Division II coach at Southern Indiana, where he spent nine years from 1992 to 2001, doing without luxuries such as a strength coach. His long stint there was partly self imposed and partly a professional purgatory, the result of the most controversial episode in his biography. He was a rising protege of former Iowa coach Tom Davis in 1989 when he made himself infamous in the profession for taping a conversation with a recruit and using it to turn in Illinois to the NCAA for recruiting violations. He had violated a code of honor among thieves. He found himself shunned and blackballed from head coaching jobs. He still says he would do it again.
Pearl temperamentally was incapable of keeping his mouth shut, once he decided something was wrong. As for ostracism, that didn't scare him. He is the grandson of an Austrian Jew who came to America in the 1920s and lost scores of relatives in the Holocaust. He was reared conservatively by his parents, Barbara and Bernie Pearlmutter, a salesman who shortened the name to Pearl for convenience sake, in Boston in the racially charged 1970s. He learned to think hard about right and wrong on social issues such as forced busing, to appreciate the ethnic mix of Boston from Southie to the North End, and to defend his faith with his fists.
"I grew up watching kids swing at each other because their skin was a different color," he says.
Pearl was a three-sport star at Sharon High who consciously set out to counter stereotypes. "And of course there was something stereotypically not tough about being Jewish," he says. He resented it when the annual athletic banquets would begin with "In Christ's name we pray." It made him feel discounted, excluded. God was with him, too, he told himself. When his friends crossed themselves, he made the Star of David.
When he was a senior, he was playing first base one afternoon when a base runner called him a "Jew Boy." Pearl tapped his glove, signaling the pitcher to throw to first. When the ball slapped into Pearl's mitt, he whirled, smacked it into the runner's face and started swinging. "I went to dukes," he says. He was tossed from the game.
He had his choice of local colleges, but he specifically chose Boston College because it was the best sports school in town, and because he wanted to prove a Jewish student could make it at a Catholic university.
"I wanted kids to meet someone who was Jewish, and have them say, 'Gosh, you don't look Jewish, or act Jewish,' " he says. "I wanted to talk about religion, to have those discussions."
His playing career at BC flamed out because of a series of knee injuries, but he met Davis, who hired him to help whip up enthusiasm in the student body. Pearl became a boy Friday.
"Manager, trainer, bus driver, whatever we needed, he was there," Davis says. "The thing you have to understand is that he literally worked his way up from the bottom of the profession."
By the time Pearl was a senior, Davis was so impressed that he put him on his staff. Pearl stayed with Davis for the next 14 years: They moved on to Stanford, where they restored a program that had had 20 straight losing seasons, and then to Iowa. It was Davis who taught Pearl that with enough conviction and energy, even a bad strategy could work.
"It's not what you do, it's how you do it," Davis says.
The philosophy stood Pearl in good stead after the NCAA debacle, and so did the support of Davis, who "understood it," Davis says. "There was no winners in that situation. You just had to move on."