Determined Pearl could rise from depths of NCAA penalties
Bruce Pearl's three-year show-cause puts major college job offers in jeopardy
The ex-Tennessee coach rejuvenated a lifeless program in six years at Tennessee
Pearl might use that determination to work his way back into major college jobs
The three-year show-cause the NCAA handed to Bruce Pearl on Wednesday was little more than a formality. Tennessee fired Pearl in March -- after backing him for months -- because it realized such a penalty was coming, and wanted to save its own hide. The Vols escaped further sanctions from the NCAA, whose decision on Pearl was just. When you're intent on cracking down on rule-violators, and have extremely limited investigative powers, you need to make examples out of liars.
Pearl did not just lie to NCAA investigators about illegally hosting recruits at a team barbecue, either. His more shameful move was attempting to strong-arm one of the recruits' fathers into participating in the cover-up. After reading the father's recollection of that conversation in the NCAA's report, it's hard to feel much sympathy over Pearl's plight. The whole discussion of his violations, which began with a September 2010 "apology" press conference, and then dragged on through the entire 2010-11 season, turned tiresome a long time ago.
What the college basketball world should remain curious about is the next stage of Pearl's career. While Pearl's three-year show-cause does not forbid a school from hiring him before Aug. 23, 2014, it places such extensive roadblocks against it, particularly in the realm of recruiting, to make college job offers unlikely. His best employment option is to become a head coach in the NBDL. In early August, Donnie Nelson, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks' D-League franchise, the Texas Legends, offered what he called "the most aggressive [contract] package in D-League history" to Pearl, with a salary around $500,000 per year.
Given Pearl's head-coaching acumen, he'd be likely to succeed at that level, and then move up the ladder onto an NBA bench as an assistant. Disgraced college coaches Kelvin Sampson (now with the Bucks) and Quin Snyder (first in the NBDL, now with the Lakers) have found such homes in the pros. But they have faded quietly into the background of a player's league, taking on very different roles than they had in college, which revolves around the cult of the coach. Pearl might enjoy the pros while it's his only option, but long-term, he does not seem suited for the quieter life. He thrived on being the coach, mentor, huckster, cheerleader and face of a program all at once.
The one constant in Pearl's career is that he brings the spotlight to him, starting with the Deon Thomas scandal in 1988, which turned Pearl from an anonymous Iowa assistant into a notorious whistleblower and lifetime enemy of Illinois fans. The tape-recorded conversations he turned over to the NCAA, alleging that the Illini were offering illicit payments to secure the services of Thomas, a blue-chip recruit, did not directly result in any penalties against Illinois, but did get Pearl blackballed from D-I head coach searches. To get his own program, he had to go to D-II Southern Indiana in 1992 -- and within three years, he turned a 10-win team into a national champion. Pearl took over UW-Milwaukee in 2001, when its conference was in its first year of being called the Horizon League (and thus had no national cachet), and took the Panthers to the Sweet Sixteen in 2005.
He then left for Tennessee, which everyone said was a football school that would always be a football school, and with his immediate on-floor success and relentless promotion, turned men's basketball into the hottest thing on campus. He won an SEC title in just his third season, and every athletic director with a job opening at a non-basketball school set out to find his own version of Bruce Pearl. Until, that is, his career came crashing down on a lie to an NCAA investigator, who was holding an incriminating photo of Pearl and a recruit, and his position became so untenable that his own athletic director had to push him to the curb. Pearl had come full-circle, from whistleblower to hypocrite, and the spotlight was on him for all the wrong reasons.
Pearl's return to college basketball would have to happen on a much smaller stage than the SEC. Coaches with show-causes don't get to pick up where they left off. Todd Bozeman, who received an eight-year show-cause in 1996 for paying a recruit at Cal, didn't land a head-coaching gig until 2006 -- and that was at Morgan State. Bozeman has had four straight winning seasons there, including two trips to the NCAA tournament, but doesn't get mentioned as a candidate for major-conference job openings.
After being considered among the elites of his profession -- he made the NCAAs every year he was in Knoxville, and was one win shy of the Final Four two years ago -- Pearl will have to slog back through low- or mid-majordom as penance for his ethical failures. But I fully expect him to do just that in 2-3 seasons; he's only 51 years old and still overflowing with energy. It was telling that Pearl's reaction to Wednesday's NCAA announcement was not that he was putting it behind him, but that he was "disappointed with the length of the show-cause."
Pearl has described himself as a college guy, and even in his days as an undergrad at Boston College, he was desperate to be a part of the game. After coach Tom Davis cut Pearl in his attempt to walk on to the Eagles, he managed to join the team as an administrative assistant. Making good on his vow to do "anything" to help Davis, Pearl went to the extent of filling in for the team's mascot in an NCAA tournament game. A different kind of desperation was evident in this week's show-cause report -- that of a coach who'd put himself in a serious mess by lying, risking more trouble by asking a recruit's father to tell more lies to the NCAA. It was Pearl's last-ditch chance at holding on to the job he loved so dearly, but now it goes down as the saddest moment of his career. You get the sense that Pearl has the drive not to let his college career end that way, though. That he is willing to once again go where there is little attention on basketball, and give people no choice but to pay attention, for better or worse.