Mark Story

So what should we all think about Bruce Pearl?

Bruce Pearl is within one victory of an epic college basketball coaching achievement.

The Auburn head man has already directed the Tigers to victories over men’s college basketball blue bloods Kansas and North Carolina in the 2019 NCAA Tournament,

Now, all that stands between Pearl and his first career Division I Final Four is regal Kentucky. Auburn (29-9) will face John Calipari’s Wildcats (30-6) at 2:20 p.m. Sunday in Kansas City’s Sprint Center in the Midwest Region finals.

“To have an opportunity to get Kansas, North Carolina and maybe Kentucky, what a better way of having an opportunity to make history (can there be) than to have that road to the Final Four?” Pearl said Saturday.

Yet the paradox of Pearl is that, even if Auburn pulls off its third March Madness overthrow of basketball royalty to crash the Final Four, it will not be the most unlikely attainment by the Tigers men’s hoops program in the past 24 months.

This is: Auburn has had not one, but two, assistant coaches implicated in two distinct FBI investigations in the past two years.

What are the odds on that?

Chuck Person, the former Auburn star and NBA standout, was engulfed in the FBI probe of college basketball recruiting improprieties. The now former Auburn assistant is alleged to have accepted $91,500 in bribes to steer Tigers players with pro potential toward a Pittsburgh-area financial adviser.

This month, Person pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge.

Amazingly, Person’s replacement on the Auburn staff, former Pennsylvania assistant Ira Bowman, was placed on administrative leave this month after another federal bribery investigation.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bowman’s former boss at Penn, now-Boston Celtics assistant Jerome Allen, testified in a federal court that he took roughly $300,000 in bribes from a Florida businessman to get the man’s son into Penn using a basketball priority slot — and that Bowman had been brought into the scheme after Allen was let go by Penn.

Losing two assistant coaches to federal investigations is more unlikely than beating Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to get to the Final Four would be.

Yet, ample winning coupled with off-court turmoil have long defined the coaching career of Pearl, 59.

As a young assistant at Iowa in 1989, Pearl “wore a wire” trying to gain evidence that Illinois had offered a recruit $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer to renege on a commitment to the Hawkeyes and choose the Fighting Illini.

Famously, as the head coach at Tennessee, Pearl invited a recruit and his father to a barbeque at his home at a time when that was not allowed by the NCAA recruiting calendar — then lied about it to NCAA investigators.

That got Pearl fired by UT in 2011 and earned the coach a three-year, show-cause penalty from the NCAA.

In the big picture, the reason major college sports is so corrupt is that there is no constituency for honesty.

Coaches with checkered compliance pasts always get other chances if they have won enough. Auburn hired Pearl — who had awakened a slumbering Tennessee basketball program and led it to six NCAA Tournaments — before his show-cause penalty had expired.

I’ve always felt that it is the responsibility of those of us in the journalistic wing of the sports media to at least try to stand up for integrity and fair play in college sports.

Nobody else will.

Yet, perhaps it’s a sign of my own waning idealism, but I enjoy Pearl in spite of myself.

His teams play an entertaining, up-tempo brand of basketball filled with three-point bombing. The Tigers drained 17 treys in their 97-80 upset of No. 1 seed North Carolina and 13 in their 89-75 strafing of Kansas.

If the Tigers are going to add Kentucky to their list of regal NCAA tourney conquests, it will be without emerging standout Chuma Okeke, who tore an ACL in the win over North Carolina.

“Of all the matchups we’ve had, Kentucky will be the most difficult,” Pearl said.

Whether it was relaunching the Ray Mears tradition at Tennessee of wearing a bright-orange sport coat for games with UK and Vanderbilt or joking about his current Auburn teams’ belief that eating at hibachi grills the night before games is good luck, Pearl injects fun into college hoops.

Yet, enjoying the fun means overlooking the turmoil. This past week, the headline over a tough USA Today column proclaimed, “Auburn’s Bruce Pearl symbolizes the rot in college athletics.”

Pearl and Auburn have, arguably, been the biggest story of the NCAA tourney so far.

Given the contradictions that have lined Pearl’s career, having the Auburn head man as the face of March Madness in 2019 somehow seems fitting.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.