ST. LOUIS — Bruce Pearl had just completed his role in a 40-minute shoot-around at the Southeastern Conference tournament — smiles, shouts, a little squeal — and now he was standing in an arena tunnel, getting himself worked into a lather about race relations and religion.
“We’ve got so much more in common,” Pearl said, and indeed the Auburn coach sees college basketball as one of society’s great equalizers. “Like Passover was the Last Supper? That makes us brothers! Like, when it comes to our Muslim brothers? Like, Abraham was our father! We’ve got the same dad. Dude! Why can’t we get along in the Middle East? Our dad is the same dude! He’s Abraham!”
Pearl kept going, as he occasionally and animatedly will do, turning the analogy on himself: In what other profession could a 57-year-old Jewish man from suburban Boston not just succeed but have his past sins largely forgiven or — with Auburn implicated as part of an FBI investigation into whether the college game is as corrupt as it is exciting — temporarily overlooked? Where else but eastern Alabama, the spine of the Bible Belt and the home of the Tigers, who won 25 games and Friday will play their first NCAA tournament game since 2003, would this be possible?
“I’m trying to bring people together,” Pearl said, and as skilled as he is at that, he’s better at elevating mediocre programs and eliminating the possibility of boredom.
More than just a coach, Pearl is a branding expert who will say and do what his other, more senatorial peers will not: paint his chest orange as he used to at Tennessee, jump into a mosh pit as he did on his first day at Auburn, admit that his most visceral joy comes not from winning games but delivering losses to his coaching enemies.
Pearl is, in other words, the very embodiment of the sport he coaches: fun and unpredictable, something of a spectacle, entirely and unquestionably — how to put this — complicated. Before this season, Pearl’s associate head coach was one of four college assistants indicted in a wide-ranging and ongoing bribery and corruption scandal that has cast a shadow over this season. Two Auburn players were held out this season because of questions about their eligibility.
Pearl, who insists he has done nothing wrong, has nevertheless done his best coaching during a period of extreme scrutiny for his profession and himself, and it underscores that Pearl is different things to different people. To many people he represents the best of college basketball and to many others the worst. He revived Tennessee men’s basketball years ago but lost his job for lying to the NCAA about broken rules. Pearl is confident enough to mingle with college students but proud enough that he once secretly recorded a telephone conversation with a recruit he had lost out on. Pearl is adored by friends and players but known by some Illinois fans as no less than “Satan.”
“A friend and extended family member,” said Tyler Summitt, son of the legendary Pat Summitt, who considered Pearl a close friend.
“A very successful coach who puts his players first,” said Gary Close, who spent a decade coaching alongside Pearl.
“A bad person,” said Jimmy Collins, a former coaching rival who has spent 30 years trying to forget that Bruce Pearl exists. “He may not be the worst, but he’s running a close second.”
Pearl, still in that tunnel, sees himself this way: as a coach who wins and is disliked for that reason alone, as a leader of a program he refers to as a “ministry,” as a man who long ago learned the secret to this business — become whatever his surroundings and audience need him to be.
“I’m just being myself,” he said, “for better or worse.”
Pearl can’t remember a time he wasn’t outgoing — no turning-point origin story here — but life truly begins when you dress like a giant eagle, doesn’t it, so might as well start there.
He was a senior at Boston College, and the guy who regularly dressed as the eagle mascot got sick before the 1981 NCAA tournament. A team needs a mascot, so Pearl — a do-anything student aide for Coach Tom Davis — volunteered to don the beak and feathers, and in 2005 he would tell reporters that he got so into it that he was nearly thrown out.
“I just try to help my coach — whatever message he was trying to deliver,” Pearl would say much later, and the enthusiastic young man learned back then that if the team somehow benefited, he wasn’t truly defiling himself.
Anyway, Pearl was going to take a sales job after college until he heard Davis was leaving for Stanford. So Pearl wrote the coach a letter, Davis called to invite him to join him in Palo Alto, Calif., and didn’t he know that coaching was sales?
Before long, Pearl was part of a staff charming professors about the fun of Stanford basketball, soothing the fire marshal when the arena was oversold, convincing recruits the Cardinal — which at that time hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since winning it in 1942 — was undefeated in tournament play.
Pearl kept climbing, figuring passion had no downside, and it turned out the man could coach, too. He won a Division II national title at Southern Indiana in 1995 and led Wisconsin Milwaukee to the Sweet 16 in 2005, and when Tennessee hired him to bring its program back to life, that’s what he did.
Pearl wore garish blazers and painted his chest, cheered shirtless in the student section and sumo-wrestled fans. He toured dorms to poll students on what they wanted from the basketball program and spoke at upward of 200 events each year. He befriended former Tennessee football coach Philip Fulmer, referenced the words and national title banners of women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and offered her only child a walk-on spot on his team.
Pearl represented unbridled joy and over-the-top absurdity, and whether someone viewed him as an entertainer or a scoundrel, he was convincing in either role.
“I’ve never been the most popular coach in the league because I’m a coach that has beaten your team,” he said. “Sometimes I enjoy winning as much as you losing. Now people won’t say that, but I don’t mind saying it. I’ve been saying it.”
Nearly three decades ago, when Pearl was an assistant on Davis’s staff at Iowa, he had recruited a Chicago player named Deon Thomas. The player signed with Illinois instead, and afterward, Pearl called Thomas and asked about his decision and the role of Collins, an assistant coach for Illinois.
“When . . . Jimmy offered you $80,000 and the [Chevrolet] Blazer, that upset you, didn’t it?” Pearl asked, according to a 1990 report in the Chicago Tribune.
“Yeah, somewhat,” Thomas told him, apparently unaware Pearl was recording the conversation. Pearl would later transcribe it and report it to the NCAA.
Illinois was hit with three years’ probation, though the NCAA cleared Collins of wrongdoing. The episode was nonetheless damaging to Collins and unforgettable to Illinois fans, and when Pearl and Collins were later opposing head coaches in the Horizon League, Collins bucked a postgame tradition and refused to shake Pearl’s hand.
“He coaches well,” Collins would say in an interview. “But he doesn’t care much about people, and he doesn’t care much about the system.”
Collins blames Pearl for damaging his career, and though he tried to forget about him, that became increasingly difficult as Pearl’s profile grew. He turned Tennessee into a national contender and a darling of television, and in February 2008 Pearl’s team was briefly ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. A few months later, Pearl hosted a cookout that included recruits and their families, though when NCAA investigators later asked about it, Pearl said that wasn’t true. But what about this photograph of a recruit and a woman at a house? Pearl said he didn’t recognize the woman or the house, though he’d eventually admit the woman was a longtime assistant coach’s wife and the house was his own.
Pearl, suspended for eight games during the 2010-11 season as a full-on scandal erupted amid additional violations, was fired days after a loss to Michigan to open the NCAA tournament in 2011. Pearl was slapped with a show-cause order by the NCAA, a particularly severe punishment that prohibited him from contacting recruits for three years.
“Two things in 40 years,” Pearl would say later, referring to action being taken against his programs, at Tennessee and before this season at Auburn. “They don’t define me.”
A year passed, and though Pearl was out of basketball — he found work as a grocery executive, a true sales job at last — he attended the 2012 Final Four anyway. Walking one day in New Orleans, he noticed a familiar man and approached him.
Collins turned to see the coach who he believed had ruined him, a man he had come to see as two things that, even in the seedy world of college basketball, don’t often square.
“A snitch and a cheat,” Collins would call Pearl. “. . . Anytime his name comes up, I get a bad taste in my mouth.”
Anyway, Collins said, Pearl started talking. He had been young, and he had made a mistake. Pearl told Collins he was sorry. Collins said he doesn’t remember much of what happened next, but he’s certain of this: He never did shake Pearl’s hand.
Back to religion now, and more than talent, Pearl believes something divine swept over Auburn this season.
“You give God the glory,” Pearl said last weekend at the SEC tournament, starting a point he would need a few minutes to complete. “One of the things I love about living in Auburn now. . . .”
In Alabama, he will get around to saying, it is more generally accepted to merge sports and faith, to introduce players to the Almighty, for a coach to consider his program a ministry.
Pearl will mention the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a positive influence on the Tigers, and the group reinforces his message of selflessness and love and gratitude, all important themes to Pearl.
“My point is,” he’ll finally say, “it gets to be in my locker room, letting me do things through me that I can’t do myself. The bottom line is: If we teach them to be better men, we’ll be better teammates.”
Which must explain what happened the past few months. In autumn, before associate head coach Chuck Person was indicted and two talented sophomores, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, were suspended and later ruled ineligible, Pearl believed his latest program turnaround was nearing completion. Auburn had finished with a losing record in the five seasons before Pearl’s arrival, and though he had a 44-54 overall record in his first three seasons there, including his only two losing years as a Division I head coach, he entered this season predicting the Tigers could reach the NCAA tournament.
Then everything changed, so much swept into the FBI maelstrom, and indeed Auburn lost an exhibition to tiny Barry University and a regular season game to Temple. But then December began, and Auburn defeated Alabama Birmingham and Middle Tennessee and then, despite injuries and an ejection, the Tigers survived a road game against Murray State.
Then, as if by some miracle, Auburn traveled to Tennessee and defeated Pearl’s former team by 10 points. Then three more SEC wins, and in early February, the Tigers were 9-1 in conference play and on the way their first regular season Southeastern Conference championship in 19 years.
Pearl, searching for a logical explanation, said he did what he always had done: He got to know players and shared stories about himself. About the time he coached third-grade basketball as a sixth-grader, winning a championship and talking his parents into driving everyone to the ice cream parlor so he could reward players with sundaes.
About sports as a social apparatus, sharing that he had been called hurtful things as a young athlete in Massachusetts, and his own walk with God — how Jesus was sent to save the world and the way Pearl sees his calling as more than winning games because, he said, “my wins are saving lives and bringing kids closer to Christ and . . .”
But, wait, isn’t Pearl Jewish? In fact, that’s one of the first things he said in the tunnel after shoot-around: how a 57-year-old Jewish man from Boston could succeed in Alabama and all that.
So is he Christian now?
“Here’s the deal: I’m a little bit of a hybrid,” Pearl said, and off he goes again, explaining and selling, but the truth is — Pearl’s truth is — he is, even at a level as basic as his faith, what Auburn and the Deep South need him to be.
“Kids aren’t going to become Jewish,” he said. “They’re not going to — to find God, they’re not going to find God through my God, which is Judaism. They’re going to find God through Christianity. I want them to find God. . . . How we all get there, through Christianity or being Muslim or Jewish, it’s the same Father God, and that’s what I want them to find.”
Pearl keeps talking, the truth he wants to convey somewhere in these words, and anyway, it eventually brings him back to basketball: wins against Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, and whatever was happening kept happening, and maybe there are some things that logic cannot explain.
“I became a believer,” he said.
Still talking, so often talking, and long after that morning shoot-around, it’s now halftime of the opening game of the SEC tournament. As he sits here the day before Auburn’s first game, Pearl is considering possibilities — some good and others not.
“I could lose my job at the end of the year,” he said. “Absolutely, that’s a possibility if, through this process, things are discovered or uncovered that I should’ve known or that should’ve been done.”
He doesn’t believe that will happen, insisting Wiley and Purifoy were held out only to be safe. But regardless of what comes next or the lingering suspicion around his program — of all the things Pearl will discuss, he won’t share thoughts on why, for the first time in 62 years, SEC coaches did not include a player from the regular season conference champion among the first-team all-conference honorees — Pearl said what Auburn and its players already have experienced cannot be erased.
“This will never be undone,” he said. “That will never happen. Print that in blood. Every one of these players out there is eligible.”
Pearl pauses, and with a pep band playing and fans dressed in team colors and whistles blowing and sneakers squeaking, this living, breathing, continuously talking symbol of college basketball gets himself revved up again.
“I think we’re going to come out on the other side of this in good shape,” Pearl said, a moment before he shrugs and a salesman’s smile spreads across his face. “And I’m still here. I’m still here!”
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