July 20, 2019

Auburn’s Bruce Pearl: A Coach With Plenty of Ability, Flair and Baggage

Auburn’s Bruce Pearl: A Coach With Plenty of Ability, Flair and Baggage


SALT LAKE CITY — Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl would prefer that his players get the attention. That people write about and read about their improved graduation rates, about the good they have done in the community, about the wins they have piled up, even in this tumultuous season.

But Pearl also understands that people will talk about the troubles of the Auburn coaching staff, about his three seasons out of the game after a scandal in his previous job and about the two assistants who have been sidelined by investigations in the last 17 months.

After detailing the credentials of those assistants to explain why he hired them, Pearl, 59, will concede that it is fair to question his judgment.

“It’s not a cheap shot,” he said on Wednesday, after a news conference the day before his fifth-seeded Tigers got past New Mexico State, 78-77, in the opening round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.

But Pearl was peeved that the first question at that news conference, from a wire-service reporter, was whether he wondered during his three-year absence from coaching whether he would ever be back.

“I’ve spent three years out of the game,” he said later in an interview. “That’s what we want to focus on? That’s where you guys get in trouble, when you guys start focusing on — if you think those two assistant coaches define me, then you don’t know me. You can take that angle because it’s out there, but I don’t think that’s accurate.”

Second chances do not always come around, especially in college basketball, which is known for its ruthless single-elimination tournament. Sanctioned coaches, though, often find renewal, if not redemption. Sometimes more than once.

Pearl’s colleagues in the Midwest Region of this year’s tournament include John Calipari, the coach of second-seeded Kentucky, who has had Final Four appearances vacated at two previous universities, and Kelvin Sampson, the coach of third-seeded Houston, who has left two programs on probation.

Pearl was fired by Tennessee in 2011 after he lied to the N.C.A.A. during an investigation of his program, and he did a sort of penance by spending three years working in television and as a marketing executive for a wholesale grocer.

Auburn hired him five years ago to replace Tony Barbee, who had four losing seasons with the Tigers. The team’s first-round tournament victory on Thursday, its ninth consecutive win, set up a meeting with fourth-seeded Kansas on Saturday for what Auburn hoped would be its first trip to the round of 16 since 2003.

Two days before the tournament started, Chuck Person, a former Auburn star who was hired as an assistant to Pearl, pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that he had accepted bribes to steer Auburn players to certain agents and advisers. He was fired in fall 2017. Ira Bowman, who had replaced Person, was suspended the week before the national tournament as Auburn investigated accusations that Bowman was involved in an admissions bribery scheme when he coached at Penn.

Pearl points to their credentials — Person, in addition to having deep ties to Auburn, was an N.B.A. assistant, and Bowman was the 1995-96 Ivy League player of the year — to explain why he hired them.

His personnel judgment aside, there are at least two things that appear indisputable about Pearl.

First, as a casual viewer might have observed from his work on TV, he is a character. How many other coaches have dressed up in a mascot costume, as Pearl did as a student assistant at Boston College? Or gone shirtless with orange body paint and joined the student section for a women’s game, as he did when he was the coach at Tennessee? Or regularly left his players laughing — at him more often than with him — when he tried to fire them up?

“The best speech he gave us was before Kentucky,” guard Bryce Brown said with a smile, knowing that the Tigers lost that game by 27 points.

Also, there seems little doubt that Pearl can coach.

He took Southern Indiana to the Division II national championship, Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the round of 16, Tennessee to a regional final and Auburn — which had not been to the N.C.A.A. tournament in 14 years — to an SEC championship and a conference tournament title the last two seasons.

Two of the players he has turned to on the bench are forwards Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Both were suspended last season after Person and an accomplice said in wiretapped conversations that they had paid the players’ mothers around $12,000 apiece in the hopes of steering them toward an agent.

Wiley, who considered turning professional last year, said he returned to Auburn this season with an increased appreciation for things that he might have viewed as chores in the past, like practice. He dearly missed playing last season.

“It was tough, but I had a good support staff: my family, friends, mentors and coaches,” he said. “A lot of people had my back. I just stayed in the gym.”

If the players were thrilled to have their careers back, Pearl came away with something, too: He was awarded a five-year contract extension last June.



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