Hello folks, welcome to the fourth episode of Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals. In this show we cover the most gripping, gruesome, and groundbreaking scandals in the history of the NCAA. My name is Chris Brown and I’ll be your host, guiding you through every twist and turn these stories have to offer.
For the last nine years, I’ve worked in NCAA Rules and Regulations, including four years on the NCAA staff.
If you are anything like me, you love a good sports scandal. I started Major, as a way of exploring both well-known and unknown NCAA scandals. But enough about me, let’s start the show.
This week is the promised part two of Bruce Pearl’s perilous plunge into predatory practice… and if that sounds like a mouthful just wait for what’s next.
As mentioned at the end of last episode, it’s a rare enough thing to be caught in the middle of a major NCAA scandal, but in the case of this controversial coach, it seems that’s only half the story… or rather a third.
To recap last week for all those who missed it, Bruce Pearl was assistant coach for the University of Iowa basketball program all the way back in 1988. He was ramping up for a big season, trying to score a top Chicago recruit, when surprise surprise, The Illini swooped in and made the steal.
Fast forward to the infamous call and our lovely two week special subject, Bruce Pearl, was found to have recorded Deon Thomas (the lost recruit), without his knowledge as he badmouthed his own school and revealed evidence against them. While Thomas made it out relativity unscathed, Illinois suffered from the investigation and Pearl’s reputation was forever harmed… lucky for him the great state of Tennessee knows how to forgive.
Thus, Pearl’s scandalous journey begins, and our show has more to report.
What happens from here? Where’s Pearl now? And what does his story tell us about the sports world we watch? Listen up and take notes because we’re diving deep and the story’s just getting started!
The Road to Tennessee
Now I should clarify that the jump from Iowa to Tennessee wasn’t overnight. Following the Deon Thomas incident, Pearl was forced to pay the piper and leave Division one basketball, something that should come as no surprise to our week to week listeners following the pattern of college sports scandals.
A move to division two or three is pretty par for the course… getting out of it, now that’s less common.
So, after Iowa Pearl lands a head coaching job at Southern Indiana, where he spent several years and rebuilt his reputation.
Laying low, fundraising well, and pulling in four Great Lakes Valley Conference Titles and a division two national championship appearance seemed to serve Bruce well (especially the titles, something we’ll hit on later in the episode).
After 9 years with the Screamin Eagles, Pearl had apparently put in his time and done the impossible, worked his way bag to the big leagues.
Signed on to replace Bo Ryan, previous head coach of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Bruce Pearl had found his new home in Division one basketball, somewhere he’d stay for the next four years. While relatively low radar, it’s important to note that Milwaukee was forced to self-report a recruiting violation made by Pearl during his stay in the great dairy state.
The violation… visiting a high school junior recruit at an off campus site. Seems unimportant but keep that in mind as we keep on chugging.
Regardless of the tiny road bump, Pearl had finally made it back to a major Division one team, this time as a head coach for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2005. Back on top, on his way to the headlines. A place Pearl found familiar.
The Tennessee Barbeque
There’s no denying that Pearl found genuine and immediate success in Tennessee. After only a couple season’s Pearl and the volunteers captured a SEC regular season title and the school’s first ever number ranking on an AP top 25 poll. And this is something we should hit on before we reach the scandal.
While Pearl’s career can be summed up by a string of scandals (hold on I promise their coming) another common thread is his real success coaching. Part of Pearl’s controversy is the exchange between good and bad. We’ll cover this more later but it’s worth remembering that the man’s not getting the second chances for nothing. He’s risen out of pits by his record of success… and often brought back down into the pits we all remember.
Regardless, all this talk of downfall must have the mouth watering. Watering for scandal? Sure. For Barbeque? I mean… not what we’re expecting, right?
Pearl’s next trip in to coverup and scandal takes place at a backyard barbeque, or if you like it more sinister, a mass meeting of illegal recruits.
Late in 2010 reports started to surface that Pearl had been once again meeting with junior recruits outside of campus locations. This of course was denied by Pearl, a deny ‘til you die fanatic, all the way up until photos surfaced of Aaron Craft (yes the famous Ohio state buckeye’s, Aaron Craft) at a backyard barbeque held by Pearl.
With no other choice, Pearl came out with a teary-eyed press conference, a showing of emotion that, for better or for worse, is common for Pearl. Some take it as genuine, other’s as fake, but no matter what side you’re on you can’t deny the truth… it’s gets worse from here.
First, only four days after that apology, Pearl, and his assistant coach we’re caught having “bumped” into junior recruit Jordan Adams outside, once again outside of campus boundaries. On top of that, it started to come out that Pearl had knowingly and purposefully broken this NCAA rule with his barbeque as he had informed the guests of the violation and asked them not to tell anyone.
While I am not advocating for violating NCAA rules, if you are going to do so, it is probably a good idea to not announce it at a barbeque.
Pearl was initially suspended for the first eight conference games of the season, with Tennessee eventually deciding to cut ties with the coach all together. Alongside Pearl’s loss of a job, he was also hit with a three year show cause penalty by the NCAA, one of the harshest punishments an individual can receive. Show cause penalties, can often end the careers of head coaches.
So that’s the end for Coach Bruce Pearl, no coming back from that… I’m sure you see where this is going. The yoyo coach seems to always find his way in, this time as head coach for the Auburn men’s basketball program.
The Auburn Meltdown
In March of 2014, Auburn University hired Bruce Pearl, awarding him a six year contract worth $14 million and the… let’s call it honor of becoming the first coach in NCAA history to be hired while in the middle of a show cause penalty. Bruce Pearl truly is a pioneer of sporting scandals.
After three years of somewhat uneventful basketball at Auburn, things started heating up around Pearl, as they seem to always do… but this time, Pearl wasn’t alone. September 27, 2017, became an infamous day in the NCAA and all of college sports as the FBI announced its investigation into college basketball. While a story of that magnitude must be saved for another day, it should be unsurprising that Bruce found a way to dip his toe into it. Pearl’s assistant coach Chuck Person was one of the four coaches to be arrested, later charged with bribery, fraud, and conspiracy.
Following that debacle, Auburn would put two more staffers on leave and had to suspend players Austin Wiley and Daniel Purifoy due to violations associated with the investigation. Surely you are thinking at this point that Pearl has to be involved in some way or another, but it turns out, in the eyes of the FBI and NCAA, the guy was clean. But what about Auburn?
Following the investigation, Auburn announced a second, this time internal investigation and asked for Pearl’s total cooperation in the process… unfortunately they didn’t receive it. In fact, Auburn’s president came out in a press conference and said this, “Having three of his employees suspended or terminated is troublesome at best. (Pearl’s) unwillingness to even talk to me about it is particularly troublesome.”
So let’s trace back. We’re in the middle of Pearl’s third major scandal, his employers launch an internal investigation, and he, even to his own school, is unwilling to say a peep. Looks like the end of Pearl, right?... Wrong.
Pearl, the next year would then go on to win a share of the SEC title, earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and help the Tigers make their first final four appearance in school history. Auburn awarded Pearl’s outstanding season with a five year extension which started at $3.8 million during the 2019-20 season and will increase by $125,000 each year after that to a maximum figure of $4.3 million in the final year.
Man vs. Victory
This incredible and to many frustrating climax to Pearl’s still running story is what leads us into perhaps a greater question about the sporting world as a whole… Is it willing to forgive cheating if it means victory?
As we mentioned, Pearl’s coaching history has been categorized by two things: Scandal and victory. And unlike many of the other coaching subjects we’ve discussed on the podcast before, Pearl is still out and kicking. He’s survived the scandals because whether we like it or not, your team will forgive you if you make it worth the while.
But is it just the team’s forgiveness? Are fans guilty as well? And where does it end? Let’s get into it all with the host opinion hot seat.
Well there you have it folks, the story of Bruce Pearl, the conclusion of our two part special. But you’ve heard our thoughts, now we want to hear yours. Give us a follow on our social media at @brown_athletics on twitter and @majorpodcast on Instagram and tell us your thoughts on the king of scandal or as others see it, unsung hero of program resurrection.
We here at Major – Stories of NCAA Scandal hope you enjoyed our latest episode covering the world of NCAA scandals. Thank you everyone for tuning in, again I’m your host Chris Brown and wishing you a good day and life free of scandal!