MINNEAPOLIS — Standing the hallway just outside of Auburn’s locker room somewhere inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., Bruce Pearl was calm.
He wasn’t two hours earlier, just steps away on the court where his Tigers defeated Kentucky 77-71 in overtime to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history. He was animated. He ripped his suit jacket off, revealing a dress shirt he had sweat all the way through. He shouted at the officials and gestured to his players on the court using his entire body. A short clip of him on the sideline, jaw clenched and head shaking, quickly went viral.
But that version of Pearl is nowhere to be seen right now. It usually disappears within a few minutes after the final buzzer sounds, not to return until the next time Auburn takes the court. The Midwest Region trophy has been handed out, the nets cut down and the news conference completed. All that’s left to do is board the team bus headed back to the team hotel, then to the airport, then back home to the Plains.
That’s when the question is asked.
“Does this moment take on any special significance because of the adversity and the controversy that you and this team have gone through?”
It’s the type of question Pearl might never fully be able to escape. It was asked in some form before the start of the Midwest Regional on Thursday, as all four coaches there — Pearl, Kentucky’s John Calipari, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson — have had some sort of run-in with the NCAA. It was asked again in Minneapolis, where the Tigers’ coach and his players are facing reporters before they face Virginia on Saturday (5:09 p.m., CBS).
And it certainly is a fair question. Pearl has been an incredibly successful head coach since he got his first opportunity in 1992. He has a 562-216 overall coaching record, a Division II national championship and 10 Division I NCAA tournament appearances over 24 seasons at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee, Tennessee and Auburn. At 59 years old, he is in the Division I Final Four for the first time in his head coaching career.
But you can’t talk about all the good Pearl has done as a coach without at least mentioning the bad, too.
There was the time when, as an assistant coach at Iowa, he secretly recorded a conversation with a recruit to try to implicate a rival. There was the cookout in Knoxville, Tenn., when he invited a high school player and his family to his house on an unofficial visit against NCAA rules, encouraged those in attendance not to discuss it, and lied about it after an investigation was launched.
There was the Chuck Person saga that unfolded at Auburn last season, when Pearl’s former associate head coach was arrested and charged with six counts of federal corruption as part of the FBI’s sweeping investigation of college basketball. There was even the discovery before the SEC tournament that first-year assistant Ira Bowman was involved in a scandal that took place years ago at Penn, though that was revealed during the unrelated Medicare and Medicaid fraud trial of a Florida businessman. He hasn’t been with the team since.
"Ninety-nine percent of what we got going is still really, really good and we should continue to focus on that. At the same time, you know, there have been some things that have — that are taking place that distract a little bit from the game and from what we're trying to do," Pearl said last week, speaking not just about Auburn but the state of college basketball as a whole.
"I think we should try to keep those things in perspective. I think we should work to try to, you know, improve in that area, deal with it openly and honestly, get to the facts before we judge, and let the process work itself out."
The incident at Tennessee eventually ended up costing Pearl his job after six seasons. There was a time when some people thought last season’s incident at Auburn might come to the same end, but it didn’t. Person was fired, and last month, entered what is expected to be a noncooperation guilty plea, assuring he will not go to trial (his sentencing is set for July 9). Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, the two players caught up in the scheme, were ruled eligible to return to competition this season after sitting out throughout the 2017-18 campaign.
University president Steven Leath and athletic director Allen Greene, both still relative newcomers in those jobs, felt comfortable enough with the basketball coach they inherited from the Jay Jacobs era that they extended his contract through the 2022-23 season. Both have followed the team’s Final Four run every step of the way.
"I knew what I knew, and I knew all that I didn't know. So therefore, I was comfortable that if we stayed the course, that we were going to be fine," Pearl said in Minneapolis on Thursday. That doesn't make what happened right, and certainly there have been severe penalties, both people in coaching as well as student-athletes. Our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like that, and when we don't do our job, there are consequences. But I didn't think it was going to disrupt our program because I knew what I knew and I knew what I didn't know."
So, to answer the initial question, Pearl said: “Not really, because, you know, it’s just not the focus. There are so many challenges in the preparation and all the other things that we’re going and working towards — the full-time academic loads, all the different things — that the couple of things that went wrong really just weren’t the focus of the team.”
And really, they probably shouldn’t be. In five seasons, Pearl has turned a moribund Auburn program that no one took all too seriously into one that has fans pouring out of homes and bars to roll Toomer’s Corner and wait for the team outside Auburn Arena by the hundreds.
"I heard it here and there in some articles, but nobody bashed Bruce in my recruitment," junior center Anfernee McLemore said. "I was familiar with what happened when he was at Tennessee, but, you know, I knew that he was a great coach and that he could overcome it and just be great."
Last season, the Tigers won a share of the SEC regular-season title for the first time since 1999 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. This season, they won the SEC tournament championship for the first time since 1985 and ran through New Mexico State and blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to reach the Final Four for the first time ever.
They did it with a team full of underdogs — led by 5-foot-11 point guard Jared Harper and underrecruited former three-star shooting guard Bryce Brown — that play Pearl’s way, creating chaos on defense and launching more 3-pointers than all but one team in the country. They lost star forward Chuma Okeke to a torn ACL in the round of 16 and defeated the Wildcats in the regional finals even without him.
That seems to be the story worth focusing on his weekend, rather than Pearl’s past transgressions. Well, that and the Auburn coach’s sideline antics.
“If you come watch me in practice, or you come watch me in an exhibition game, watch us play at home or on the road, I’m the same,” Pearl said. “For better or worse, or for worse or for worse, I’m the same.”