AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl, ebullient extrovert, is on guard.
The man who once publicly painted his bare chest orange today spends much of a 90-minute interview in his office with arms tightly folded across that barrel chest. At times the Auburn basketball coach chooses his words with the trepidation of a man navigating a minefield — long pauses and cautious whispers interspersed throughout. Only on occasion does he loosen his grip on himself and let the demonstrative, charismatic, emotive Bruce come out.
Pearl’s pensive aura is at odds with the joyous basketball product he is putting on the floor this season. At the time of the interview, his team was 21-2 — they would lose Wednesday night to Texas A&M yet still retain the lead in the Southeastern Conference. Here in the February stretch run, a group picked to finish ninth in the SEC is an NCAA tournament lock and a likely high seed. The Tigers are, quite simply, the biggest surprise in the sport.
On the court, these are the best of basketball times for a school with a scant hoops lineage. On the court, Pearl is the clear choice at the moment for national Coach of the Year.
But that’s not the whole story at Auburn. The rest of the story is just hovering there, immovable and impossible to ignore, a perpetual shadow across this season of sunshine.
And that’s why Pearl is on guard. A tireless showman can’t fully enjoy the remarkable production he has staged. Not now, not yet, and maybe not ever.
Why is Bruce Pearl still here?
His program is immersed in a federal investigation, one that has affected at least seven college basketball programs nationwide, not to mention two giant sneaker companies, several AAU teams and numerous agents and financial advisers.
Assistant coach Chuck Person, one of the great players in school history, has been fired. He’s been charged by the feds with accepting $90,000 in bribes over a 10-month period in exchange for steering Auburn players to an Atlanta clothier and a financial adviser. Person faces a trial date in February 2019.
One Auburn player, star center Austin Wiley, has been ruled ineligible for the season by the NCAA. A second player, Danjel Purifoy, also has not played this season but is still attempting to regain eligibility.
Two staffers are on administrative leave. Video coordinator Frankie Johnson and special assistant Jordan VerHulst have been in limbo for nearly three months now.
And Pearl himself has declined to sit down for a formal interview with the law firm Auburn hired to conduct its internal investigation of the basketball program.
With five members of the program impacted by the federal investigation and/or NCAA rules, and with Pearl already having endured an NCAA show-cause penalty for violations committed while the coach was at Tennessee, and with the coach currently unwilling to completely play ball with the school’s own investigation, it’s a fair question:
Why is Bruce Pearl sitting here, in his office, wearing Auburn shorts and T-shirt and jacket?
There are two possible reasons:
* There is compelling (but currently undisclosed) evidence that supports Pearl’s continued employment. At this stage he has not been accused of any wrongdoing, either legally or via NCAA rules, or of having knowledge of any wrongdoing.
* This is Auburn, a school with a remarkably high tolerance for scandal, the kind of place that would never let a major investigation get in the way of a great season. (See: Newton, Cam, 2010 football team.)
The principals involved cannot or will not say much about the particulars of the situation. Athletic director Allen Greene has only been officially on the job since Feb. 1, which for now keeps him above the fray. School president Steven Leath offered written answers to questions about Pearl from Yahoo Sports.
“We clearly have some sensitive issues to work through with the NCAA and related to the actions of the former assistant coach,” Leath told Yahoo Sports. “Coach Pearl and I talk regularly, and I’ve repeatedly told him we want him as our coach. Auburn basketball has an exciting future.”
And Pearl himself? This is one of those areas of conversation where he chooses his words with exceeding care.
“I’ve got some concerns,” Pearl allowed, then put on his showman’s smile. “But I really think we’re going to get through this. I trust the process.”
Of course, there is no indication where the process stands, or when it will end. By and large, the feds have first run at this corruption investigation and then the NCAA is expected to step in. With Person given a trial date of nearly a year from now, the process seemingly has a very long way to go.
But the NCAA context cannot be ignored. One of the association’s major rule changes in recent years was to hold head coaches accountable for violations committed by their staff members, which in the case of Person would seem to be trouble for Pearl. His previous history with the NCAA, when he lied to investigators about a relatively minor recruiting violation, is part of the backstory as well. That led to a suspension by the Southeastern Conference, a firing at Tennessee and a three-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA in 2011.
Given all that, going through an interview on guard is understandable.
“Look, I’m the head coach, this situation happened on my watch, and ultimately I’m responsible,” Pearl said. “Unfortunately, some student-athletes and staff have been hurt by this. But the guys that are left, we’re in good standing, and we’re grinding.
“We’ve been working on this since September. We hope to have closure soon.”
While awaiting that closure, a miraculous season is reaching its latter stages.
Three seasons into Bruce Pearl’s Auburn tenure, it was fair to wonder whether he’d lost some of his coaching magic.
Through the first 19 years of his head-coaching career, at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee and Tennessee, he’d never had a losing season. In all but two of those 19 seasons, he’d won at least 20 games. But at Auburn, the results were far from immediate.
Pearl went 15-20 his first year, 11-20 his second. Both years, the Tigers finished 13th in the 14-team SEC. Auburn climbed above .500 overall in Year Three, but the Tigers still were just 7-11 in league play and finished 11th.
Now in his late 50s, having sat out three seasons between Knoxville and Auburn, maybe he’d misplaced his mojo. Maybe he was no longer connecting with young men the way he once did. Maybe his galvanizing combination of cockiness and combativeness had started to wane.
Then this season started, and any creeping doubts were emphatically erased.
Auburn wasn’t expected to be very good by the outside world. The team didn’t have a single game scheduled on ESPN’s main network, and just three on other ESPN networks — against Texas A&M, Connecticut and Kentucky.
“I made sure the players understood,” Pearl said, “that ESPN wasn’t coming here for Auburn. They’re coming here for those three teams.”
And those low expectations were with Wiley and Purifoy. Wiley was especially considered a key ingredient, a 6-foot-11, 260-pounder who was ranked among the top 20 freshmen in the nation and a member of USA Basketball’s FIBA world championship teams. He committed to Auburn as a high school junior, and when he signed with the school it was a major validation of Pearl’s program.
After becoming academically eligible one semester into his Auburn tenure, Wiley made an instant impact last season and was expected to blossom into a star this year. Instead, he hasn’t played a minute. The 6-7, 230-pound Purifoy’s absence is significant as well for an undersized team.
“The big thing about not having those guys, it absolutely breaks our heart,” Pearl said. “They’re not good kids, they’re great kids. Here’s the thing about Austin Wiley: He was captain of the United States of America Olympic basketball team [actually the national team] last year. This is not your typical Auburn center, your ninth-best team in the SEC.
“He was a legacy kid — both his parents went here. If anybody wants to accomplish something on behalf of Auburn, it’s him. Austin’s commitment, this kid who could have gone to Duke or Kansas, really helped us get this thing started.
“Those are our brothers. We messed up, and they lost their eligibility. It’s not woe is us, it’s woe is them. We felt sorry for those two kids. But then you have to go to work.”
The work began in earnest in the offseason. The returning players were unanimous in their opinion that they had underachieved in 2016-17 by failing to make the NCAA or NIT tournaments. Thus they were open to change.
They agreed to share the basketball more. They honed in on small deficiencies — transition defense, blocking out on the glass, foul shooting. They took their craft more seriously.
“People have known Auburn basketball for not being good,” said Mustapha Heron, the team’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder this season. “It was just time for a change.”
One staff change Pearl made was promoting his son, Steven, to full-time assistant coach. And one of the things Steven told his father was that his Auburn teams weren’t playing with the edge of his Tennessee teams.
Steven would know, having been a brass-knuckles battler on some accomplished Volunteers squads. That element was missing in Bruce’s first three seasons at Auburn. It was time to import some of that, and newcomers DeSean Murray (Presbyterian transfer), Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell (freshmen) supplied it.
“We had some really talented kids, and similar athletes to what we had at Tennessee,” Steven Pearl said. “But not a lot of toughness. I think toughness is contagious, and we brought in some guys who have taken the toughness level way up.”
Another, more subtle change: Haircuts. Make of it what you will, but there is considerably less hair on this year’s team.
“This is crazy,” Pearl said. “But get the program out from last year and look at their hair. Then look at their hair this year. They make those choices, not me. I pick my battles. I’m not worried about that. I would never judge them or force them, but I made sure they understood how the world looks at it, maybe.”
Still, all the intangible stuff has to become something tangible on the court before anyone believes it. Auburn lost its first legitimate test of the season, against Temple, on Nov. 17. But then the Tigers didn’t lose again for two months.
They reeled off 14 straight wins, beating quality mid-majors Middle Tennessee and Murray State and then starting SEC play 4-0. That included a victory at Tennessee that keeps improving as the Volunteers keep winning.
Even after a five-point loss at Alabama, Auburn responded with five more victories. The Tigers were playing at the fastest tempo in the SEC, ripping and running and shooting with aplomb. Down one coach, two staffers and two very important players, they became a revelation that has galvanized the campus.
“What Coach Pearl has done this season on the court is nothing short of phenomenal,” said Leath, the school president. “On top of that, he’s an enthusiastic and effective Auburn ambassador wherever he goes.”
The schedule becomes appreciably tougher this month, though. Auburn’s height issues were exposed Wednesday night by Texas A&M, and certainly will be an issue again next week against Kentucky. We’ll see whether the Tigers can continue to compensate for what they lack, while wondering what could have been with a full hand.
Said Heron: “I think we’d be the No. 1 team in the country.”
Eventually, Bruce Pearl unfolds his arms from his chest and gets both spiritual and emotional.
“I’ve got a little Dick Vermeil in me,” he says, referring to the former football coach with a penchant for public tears.
Pearl has always been a chameleon of sorts, a Jewish Boston native who made himself at home in places like Evansville, Indiana, and then the Deep South at Knoxville and Auburn. Along the way his marriage to his second wife, Brandy, has brought him in touch with southern Christianity and a different outlook on religion.
That’s one reason he refers to “the ministry of coaching,” and what he says he missed most during his time in NCAA-mandated exile after Tennessee.
“I was watching the movie ‘The Help,’ and I was really emotional,” Pearl said. “To the point where Brandy was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ … That fight was a fight I fought for a long time — I’ve been coaching since 1978, and I’ve done nothing else.
“I’ve been coaching since before Proposition 48, and I grew up in Boston, so I knew what racism and antisemitism felt like. And intercollegiate athletics was color blind. For the most part, my religion wasn’t a factor. And I realized that fight I had fought for so many kids, just to give them that opportunity, I wasn’t in that fight anymore.”
There is some grandiosity in that statement. But there also is a tear escaping the corner of Pearl’s left eye as he makes it. He’s a basketball coach, with a checkered past and an uncertain future, but also a missionary’s zeal that allows him to view things differently.
Whether that view is focused or blurred is open to interpretation. But for the moment, arms unfolded and the old charisma coming out, Bruce Pearl declares that he’s unafraid of what awaits him.
“I put my faith in God, not man,” he says. “I’m going to be judged for a lot of reasons, so maybe the good outweighs the bad.”
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