To many, Bruce Pearl is one of the feel good stories of the 2019 Final Four. To some, he may even be the feel good story of the 2019 Final Four. It doesn’t take a significant amount of effort to understand why.
For decades now, fans have been taken with Pearl’s heart-on-his-sleeve persona, his sense of humor, his willingness to do silly things like paint his chest for a women’s basketball game, and his openness with his emotions.
For others who have closely followed Pearl’s career for decades, the tears, the smile, the gimmicks all seem like little more than masking agents to distract the public from the fact that the man is a phony, a cheat and a snitch.
“You can be a cheat or a snitch and still get respect in this sport. Being both makes that a lot harder,” a current Division-I assistant coach told SB Nation.
“(Pearl) can get away with it because he’s charming and, you know, a hell of a coach.”
Pearl’s very first season of direct involvement with college basketball came in 1978-79, when he served as a student aide for the Boston College Eagles during his freshman year at the school. That same team would go on to be at the center of the most infamous point shaving scandal in the history of the sport. Pearl would stay with the team throughout his college career, at one point serving time as the Eagle mascot after the student who typically fulfilled that role had gotten sick.
Though Pearl’s first taste of college hoops scandal only featured him on the periphery, his second taste involved a case covered in his own fingerprints. It was also a scandal that would change his reputation, and his coaching career, forever.
1988-89 — The Deon Thomas Incident
After spending four seasons as an assistant at Stanford, Pearl joined Tom Davis’ first staff at Iowa in 1986. In his first two seasons on the job, Davis led the Hawkeyes to back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Now the pressure was on Davis, Pearl and company to keep the momentum going. For Pearl, a big part of that was continuing to bring some of the best high school talent in the Midwest to Iowa City.
This leads us to Deon Thomas, a star at Chicago’s Simeon High School and the state of Illinois’ Mr. Basketball for 1989. Pearl was Iowa’s lead recruiter for Thomas, whose decision ultimately came down to the Hawkeyes and Illinois. To hear Thomas tell it, his signing with Illinois was largely influenced by his grandmother’s distrust of Pearl.
“My grandmother saw right through him as clear as glass,” Thomas said in 2011. “And that was one of the things she told me, one of the things she would often say: ‘People need to be who they are.’”
Pearl’s belief was that there was something much shadier going on. He enlisted the help of Renaldo Kyles, a friend and teammate of Thomas’. Pearl earned the teammate’s trust by floating the possibility that Iowa might offer the under-recruited prospect a scholarship (that never happened). Kyles would eventually pass along word that Thomas was receiving impermissible benefits from Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins that included $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer. That intel led Pearl to, unbeknownst to Thomas, tape a phone conversation he and the recruit had on April 9, 1989.
Here’s a portion of the transcript that Pearl would go on to type out and eventually submit to the NCAA:
Pearl: Okay baby. Listen, I just want to go over a couple of things and ask you a couple of questions.
Thomas: Uh-huh (yes).
Pearl: Okay? When you went down to the Indiana game…
Pearl: … and you talked with Jimmy and Jimmy offered you $80,000 and the Blazer, that upset you didn’t it?
Thomas: Yeah, somewhat.
Pearl: Tell me how…what your reaction to that was.
Thomas: Nothing, I was just more amazed, you know.
Thomas: I didn’t say anything about it to him.
Thomas: You know, I just laughed it off.
Pearl: Really? I felt at the time Deon that…at the time, I really felt like even though you were leaning towards Iowa, I felt that Illinois was in decent shape. Especially if they could play well this year, give it all their talent (?) you know what I’m saying? And I thought you were going to take a look. But when they offered you the money, didn’t that turn you off a little bit?
Thomas: No. No, not really.
Pearl: It didn’t?
Thomas: You know. I just thought about it a little bit more that’s all. It didn’t really turn me off.
Thomas maintained throughout the succeeding NCAA investigation that he was never actually given or offered anything by Illinois, and that he was simply saying whatever he could to make Pearl leave him alone (phone records indicate that Pearl had called Thomas nine times in the two days leading up to the infamous taped call).
From there, things got predictably ugly.
Collins and Thomas went to the NCAA with a list of counter-allegations against Pearl that included promises of cash to both Thomas and his grandmother, a gift of $100, and the fact that Pearl had followed Thomas to Amsterdam so that he could make contact with the recruit in a way that wasn’t expressly outlawed by the NCAA. Thomas would also go on to file a lawsuit against Pearl in 1993 for secretly recording him (that suit was dismissed).
The NCAA was ultimately unable to prove the most serious of the allegations that Pearl levied against Collins. Their investigation did, however, result in Illinois self-reporting three minor violations and the NCAA finding enough to hit the school with a “lack of institutional control” charge. The Fighting Illini were placed on three-years probation, banned from the 1991 NCAA tournament, and hit with major recruiting restrictions. Thomas, who would go on to become Illinois all-time leading scorer, was forced to sit out what would have been his freshman season.
Pearl has always maintained that this wasn’t a matter of strategy or “playing the game,” that it was simply him falling into some information of alleged wrongdoing and him being possessed by the need to do what was right. A 10-page memo that Pearl drafted for his superiors at Iowa during that time would seem to indicate otherwise. The memo included a step-by-step strategy for getting Illinois in trouble with the NCAA, a strategy that included the disclaimer of “the University of Iowa must remain nameless or we’ll lose any chance of Deon coming to Iowa.”
Though Illinois bore the brunt of the scandal, it was Pearl who became the talk of the college basketball world. During the live broadcast of a game in 1990, Dick Vitale, a well-known defender of coaches at every level of the sport, famously referred to Pearl’s actions as “career suicide” and stated that his taping of the phone conversation with Thomas was “totally unethical.”
Collins never forgave Pearl. The two squared off four times when Collins was the head coach at Illinois-Chicago and Pearl was the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, both members of the Horizon League. After each of those games, Collins refused to shake Pearl’s hand.
“He coaches well,” Collins said of Pearl in 2018. “But he doesn’t care much about people, and he doesn’t care much about the system.”
1992-2001 — Southern Indiana
Pearl’s persona non grata status following the Deon Thomas incident led him to a life of exile in Division-II, where he served as the head coach at Southern Indiana from 1992-2001.
At USI, Pearl quickly developed a reputation as a furious fundraiser and a big-time winner. He won four Great Lakes Valley Conference regular season titles and led the Screamin’ Eagles to the 1995 Division-II national championship.
Pearl remained mostly out of the public eye during his time at USI, developing fierce rivalries with coaches like current Jacksonville State head coach Ray Harper, and reportedly turning down a handful of minor D-I offers. He finally made the jump back to Division-I in 2001, when he accepted the head coaching job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Pearl’s associate head coach, Rick Herdes, took over as the head coach at USI. In 2009, Herdes resigned after USI was found to have committed major NCAA violations involving “extra benefits concerning transportation, academics, and improper communication with a prospective student athlete.”
2004 — A sign of things to come at Milwaukee
In 2001, Pearl’s unofficial exile from Division-I came to an end when he accepted an offer to replace Bo Ryan as the head coach of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A little over three years later, the school forced to self-report an NCAA violation committed by Pearl.
Kevin Fitzgerald, the compliance director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — where Pearl previously coached — confirmed that the university self-reported a violation on Aug. 19, 2004, after “Coach Pearl invited a prospect [and his parents] to his daughter’s graduation party hosted at his house, a violation of 13.05.5.3.”
NCAA rules prohibit coaches from meeting with high school juniors, which the prospect in question was, at off-campus sites.
Though not particularly damaging to Pearl’s reputation at the time, this violation would almost directly mirror the one that threatened to derail his coaching career for good.
2010 — The Barbecue
Pearl took the head coaching job at Tennesssee in 2005 and almost immediately injected new life into a program desperate for it. In 2007-08, he led the Vols to the SEC regular season title and the program’s first ever No. 1 ranking in an AP top 25 poll.
Two years later, multiple reports surfaced alleging that Pearl had invited multiple top junior recruits to his Knoxville home during the fall of 2008, reports Pearl denied. When a picture surfaced of junior recruit Aaron Craft attending a barbecue at Pearl’s home, that denial became impossible to believe. Even so, Pearl initially told NCAA investigators that Craft had never been to his home, even when presented with the photographic evidence. He subsequently requested a second interview with the NCAA in August, 2010 where he admitted wrongdoing.
Pearl held a tearful press conference that September where he admitted publicly for the first time that he had committed NCAA violations and then lied to the NCAA about those violations. Tennessee responded by docking $1.5 million from Pearl’s salary and taking him and his assistant coaches off the road in recruiting in staggered amounts.
UT didn’t make those punishments effective immediately, however, which would turn out to be a crucial error in judgment.
Four days after the press conference, Pearl and assistant coach Tony James committed a secondary violation when they “bumped “ into recruit Jordan Adams. Adams initially told the NCAA that he and Pearl had a three-minute conversation where Pearl told him about what was going on with the NCAA, downplayed it, and then pointed to his Elite Eight ring and told Adams that he “can get one of these.” Pearl ultimately described the conversation differently, but his major error came in once again not self-reporting the violation immediately.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended Pearl for the first eight conference games of the 2010-11 season. Following the report of another minor violation in early March, 2011, Tennessee fired Pearl on March 22. He had coached the entirety of the 2010-11 season without a contract.
On Aug. 25, 2011, the NCAA hit Pearl with a three-year show-cause penalty. Former Tennessee assistants Tony Jones, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay all received one-year show-cause penalties. In its punishment, the NCAA made it a point to note that it was Pearl’s dishonesty which turned what would have been a minor violation into a major one.
2014-Present — New Life (and controversy) at Auburn
Four months before the end of his three-year show-cause penalty, Auburn signed Pearl to a six-year deal worth $14.7 million. In doing so, Pearl became the first coach in college basketball history to be hired by another school while saddled with an active show-cause penalty. When the show-cause penalty officially ended at midnight on Aug. 24, 2014, Pearl celebrated by dancing and posing for pictures with about 50 fans outside Auburn Arena.
Pearl’s first three seasons at Auburn were fairly uneventful. The good was that no NCAA issues arose. The bad was that failed to finish better than 11th in the SEC or play in a postseason tournament in any of those seasons.
Everything seemed to change, for both the better and worse, in September of 2017.
The news of the FBI’s probe into college basketball’s seedy underbelly shocked everyone. One of the four assistant coaches arrested on day one was Auburn’s Chuck Person, who was hit with six federal charges of bribery, fraud and conspiracy. In the weeks that followed, Auburn puts two other staffers on leave — Pearl contends he was “not told about the specifics” on why the staffers were placed on leave — and suspends players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy indefinitely. The NCAA ultimately rules that Purifoy and Wiley must sit out the entire 2017-18 season but can return in 2018-19.
Further complicating matters are reports that Pearl isn’t cooperating with Auburn’s internal investigation, and that as a result, he might be fired in the middle of the season. The comments of Auburn president Steven Leath on Nov. 22, 2017 seem to back these reports up.
“There is no rush to judgement here and we have been working with the coach for weeks to find a solution to this difficult situation,” Leath wrote at the time. “Having three of his employees suspended or terminated is troublesome at best. His unwillingness to even talk to me about it is particularly troublesome.
”In addition I have many more facts than the fans and rest assured that I will make any decision based on facts, what is best for Auburn and not on emotion or perceptions from the past. I wish we were not in such a difficult situation, but we are, and Auburn will move past this regardless of the path chosen.”
When asked on national TV by ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes in January of 2018 about the concern over his job security moving forward and what he’s learned from his latest ordeal, Pearl says simply: “That my faith in God has never been stronger and that my faith in man has never been weaker — including myself.”
Somehow, all of the controversy off the court led to Pearl’s best work on it. Despite being picked before the season to finish ninth in the SEC, Auburn goes on to win a share of the league’s regular season title and earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Pearl, who just months earlier appeared to be on the verge of losing his job for not cooperating with Auburn’s higher-ups, was rewarded by those same higher-ups with a contract extension.
On March 14, 2019, Auburn suspended assistant coach Ira Bowman, the man who was hired to replace Chuck Person, after reports surfaced that Bowman was involved in a bribery scheme during his time at the University of Pennsylvania.
Seventeen days later, Pearl led Auburn to the first Final Four in school history. Some celebrated the crowning moment of Pearl’s coaching career to date. Many did not.