Bruce Pearl: Memories, controversy, accomplishments

Marvin Westwestwords

Bruce Pearl will be back in town on Wednesday with his Auburn Tigers. Some will greet him with enthusiastic applause. They have never stopped loving him.

Some will see him again for what he is, a former Tennessee basketball coach who got fired for minor cheating and major lying to NCAA investigators.

Bruce is a complex person – intriguing, colorful, controversial and a 16-year segment of success at Tennessee and Auburn.

He is coming up on age 64. He remains highly motivated, even spirited, in his work. His pay exceeds $5 million per year. He seems to wear his heart on his sleeve. He is a natural-born salesman and religious, too, unless, as some suspect, he is a professional con man.

Steven Pearl is associate head coach at Auburn, promoted in August 2023. He played four years at Tennessee while his dad was head coach.

Bruce made quite an impression on Tennessee fans in his six seasons with the Volunteers. He got those teams into the NCAA tournament.

Getting the Tennessee job was an opportunity of a lifetime. He had been in a bush league for nine coaching years, his purgatory for being in the middle of an Iowa-Illinois recruiting war that didn’t end well.

He had turned in the Illini for cheating. Pearl said he believed he did what was right. Basketball’s bizarre outlaw street code branded him a rat and a snitch. He was ostracized within his profession.

Ernie Grunfeld eventually gave Bruce a boost. That might be how then UT athletics director Mike Hamilton found him.

Pearl hit a leadoff double. He built a better team. He made a hundred or so promotional speeches, visited student dorms, handed out snacks and chatted with freshmen. Yes, of course they would attend basketball games.

This date is historical: On January 22, 2007, Pearl appeared at a Duke-Tennessee women’s game, found a seat on the front row of the student section and pulled off his shirt. His chest was painted orange with a great grey V for Vols and victory. He led cheers. He said it was in support of Pat Summit.

Television and students loved it. One said the coach had escaped from Barnum & Bailey. That’s who he was, almost certain to be noticed, probably entertaining, maybe a little on the wild side.

Pearl’s Tennessee teams averaged more than 24 wins per season. There were victories over two top-ranked foes, Memphis and Kansas. His Vols made it to No. 1 for a little while, the first time in UT basketball history. His best team came within a few agonizing seconds of the Final Four.

There are so many other stories – all I’ll tell you about his divorce after 25 years of marriage is that Kim opened a hair salon called Alimony’s on Kingston Pike.

One more: A fire alarm went off in the middle of his most intense NCAA investigative moment at the university. He didn’t have anything to do with that but it was Bruce Pearl personified.

After he was fired and slapped with a three-year NCAA penalty, Bruce stayed around as vice president of marketing for the H.T. Hackney Company. On the side, he did well as a basketball analyst for ESPN and Sirius radio.

Later, Jay Jacobs, then Auburn athletics director, fired his coach, called Pearl and asked point-blank why he lied to the NCAA. As Jacobs recalled, the answer came with a load of emotion.

“I knew he was remorseful. He talked about the harm he had done to college basketball, the University of Tennessee and to his family.”

Think about this: Good coach crashed and burned. Former hero had tears in his eyes when he said he was sorry. It probably is painful to be infamous for falsehoods.

Some of his former assistants were not particularly impressed by his repentance. Bruce landed on his feet. He was solvent. He could take vacations. They were left scrambling. Mortgage debts did not go away.

Auburn hired Pearl five months before his show-cause restriction ran out. He coached despite several limitations. An old friend summed it up: You get more chances if you are successful.

As was originally said about the Tennessee job, Auburn was another “opportunity of a lifetime.” He has made the best of it, 10 years, his longest stay.

“You can say God’s got a plan or you can actually believe it,” said Pearl. “I go to work every day trying to reward Auburn for giving me and my family the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Beginning reconstruction at Auburn went well enough until September 2017. There was another crisis. News of the FBI probe into college basketball’s seedy underbelly shocked everyone. Pearl’s associate head coach, Chuck Person, was one of four arrested on the first day –six federal charges of bribery, fraud and conspiracy.

There was an added complication, talk that Pearl was not cooperating with Auburn’s internal investigation. There were whispers that he might be fired. He wasn’t. He was suspended a couple of games. Auburn was ineligible for postseason play. Auburn vacated 12 wins from the 2016-17 season.

Bruce ended up with a new contract and a raise. Auburn has cashed in – there have been SEC championships, a brief No. 1 ranking and the only Final Four appearance by any team from the state of Alabama.

“It’s easier to get it going than it is to keep it going,” he said. “My goal is to compete for championships every year.”

Pearl is Jewish. He has another goal. He would like to persuade the world to support Israel. He has said what he thinks about the politics of this crisis, harsh words about presidents, present and past. He has made impassioned speeches for help with tears in his eyes.

Indeed, this, too, is Bruce Pearl.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


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