"One reason I went to Boston College was to break down stereotypes," he says. "I wanted people to find out I was Jewish and go, 'You don't look Jewish. You don't act Jewish.' And then for me to be proud to say, 'I am Jewish!' And then to talk about the Old Testament and have conversations about how the Last Supper was a seder. Jesus was a rabbi! Jesus was a Jew! We're brothers!"
The BC basketball coach was Tom Davis. He cut Pearl during tryouts, but he remembered a conversation he'd had during the off-season with an admissions counselor, Bill Gerson, about ways to increase student enthusiasm for Eagles basketball. As Davis recalls, Gerson "called me up one day and said, 'I just interviewed a prospective freshman, and I've got your man!'" For the next four years Pearl worked as manager, part-time practice player and summer-camp director while serving as Boston College basketball's answer to Don King. He sold tickets door-to-door in the dorms, tacked up posters around campus and in two 1981 NCAA tournament games even donned the costume of mascot Eddie the Eagle.
In March of Pearl's senior year, Davis called with a proposal: Would Pearl be interested in following him to Stanford as a graduate assistant? Pearl's father drove up to listen to Davis's pitch, and he was skeptical. With his business degree, Bruce had a slam-dunk future as a salesman, not a basketball coach. "What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?" Bernie asks. "Where was he going to succeed more? One was a lock. And I'll be up front with you: There are not a lot of Jewish coaches. I still say to him, 'When are you going to get a real job?'"
Pearl left for Palo Alto anyway and became Davis's top assistant after a year there, at 23, just as Stanford was enjoying its first winning season in 20 years. Four years later, in '86, Davis and Pearl moved to Iowa, where their first team (with Roy Marble and B.J. Armstrong) rode Davis's full-court press to a 30--5 record and an Elite Eight berth. Meanwhile, Pearl was making his bones as a recruiter, earning the nickname Cadillac Pearl in Detroit. On the advice of a coaching friend who said that Bruce would be taken for a cop in a regular four-door rental car, Pearl pimped out his ride on recruiting visits to the city. "And it wasn't just a Cadillac," he says. "I always got a big four-door Fleetwood."
Pearl was on the fast track. By 1988, when Basketball Weekly named him one of the nation's top assistants, his move to Division I head coaching seemed inevitable. Who could have known that Cadillac Pearl was headed for a decadelong detour to obscurity?
COACHING SUICIDE. The words hung in the air like a papal excommunication, which in a sense they were, coming on national television from ESPN's Dick Vitale. The occasion was the Iowa-Illinois game in Iowa City on Jan. 29, 1990. The topic was Pearl's decision to secretly tape a conversation in which former Hawkeyes recruiting target Deon Thomas seemed to confirm that he had been offered $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to attend Illinois. "My mother begged me not to do it—begged me," Pearl says of the taping, which was legal under Iowa law. "But I was trying to right a wrong, and I got tired of people complaining about all the cheating that was going on in college athletics and not being willing to do anything about it."
Pearl turned the tape over to the NCAA, which ultimately found Illinois not guilty of wrongdoing in Thomas's recruitment but did sanction the Illini for other, unrelated violations. Davis says he supported Pearl's actions in the Thomas case, but in Vitale's eyes, Pearl had violated the coaching fraternity's unwritten code of omertà, which is adhered to far more strictly than most NCAA statutes. Some Illinois partisans took an even harder line. Pearl can still remember the late-night phone calls to his family's house in Iowa City, the anonymous voice on the other end of the line: You're dead, Pearl.
"Oh, yeah?" he'd reply. "What time would you like to meet me? Bring it on."
In those moments the adrenaline would kick in, and Pearl would revert to the Boston teenager who had a ready response for anyone in Southie who asked him if he was Jewish. "I'd say, I'm Israeli,'" he says. "Which sent a different message: I'm Jewish, but I'm also a tough guy." On two occasions, Pearl claims—once in Chicago, once in Evansville, Ind.—he was physically confronted by Illini supporters. "They were sorry they started it," he says.
As the stress from hate mail and harassing phone calls became nearly unbearable, Bruce's wife, Kim, had a miscarriage. And while Bruce says he received encouraging phone calls and letters from coaches such as Bob Knight and Dean Smith—"not in support of my methods," Pearl says, "but just of the idea that I was willing to stand up and hang in there"—no Division I head-coaching offer came his way. (Winthrop and Brown were the only two D-I schools that even interviewed him.) Finally, in the spring of 1992, Division II Southern Indiana contacted Pearl.