On Sept. 20, 2008, then-Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl hosted a cookout at his house, a decision that led to his downfall, three-year banishment from NCAA sidelines and, finally, his triumphant return when he was hired Tuesday by Auburn in a bold statement about not just the coach, but the state of college athletics.
Tennessee lost a football game that day, but Pearl's focus was on three basketball recruits who came to town on unofficial visits – they, and their parents, paid to drive themselves to Knoxville. As such, no one associated with UT could give them a ride anywhere, let alone provide them food or drink.
Why? Who knows? At some point, some subcommittee of college sports leaders decided cookouts during unofficial visits should be against the rules, even if they would seem to be an excellent way for everyone – players, parents, coaches – to get to know each other in a relaxed environment.
Bruce Pearl knew the rule. He knew what he could and couldn't do. That day he ignored it.
Pearl has rarely cared what others say he should or could do. He's a trailblazer, and that's how a former student manager took a long, winding and colorful road from student mascot, to castoff assistant, to D-II bulldog headman, to turning Tennessee into a national power.
The postgame cookout occurred back at Pearl's house. And sometime during it, a picture was snapped of Pearl, recruit Aaron Craft, who currently plays for Ohio State, and the wife of a Volunteer assistant coach, posing inside his house with a painting hanging on a wall in the background.
Later, Pearl told everyone not to mention anything about the party. It was a dumb rule, he figured. This wasn't blatant cheating. He handed out hamburgers, not bags of cash. Who cares, right?
The NCAA did care, particularly when that photo showed up in its email box.
Joyce Thompson is a smart, dutiful and serious NCAA investigator. In the movie "The Blind Side," she was the inspiration for a character that actress Sharon Morris portrayed brutally hardnosed while grilling Michael Oher to near tears. That's not Thompson. She isn't to be trifled with, though. And in 2010, she and fellow investigator Dave Didion worked a case that centered on Tennessee and that cookout.
Eventually, she sat across from Pearl and showed him the picture the NCAA had received.
"Do you have any recollection of that incident or maybe where this picture was maybe taken from and …," Thompson said according to case transcripts.
"OK," Thompson said. "Any place on campus but you don't know?"
Pearl said no. He denied there was a cookout. His assistants had already done so, too, and he denied he told his staff to deny it. He denied that he told the recruits and their parents to lie. He ridiculously denied recognizing the wife of his own assistant coach in the picture.
He denied, perhaps even more laughably, that he couldn't recognize the inside of his own house in the photo.
"Is that in your home any place?" Pearl was asked.
"No," he said.
He denied everything, even if it was true.
"I regret it every single day," Pearl told me more than once after Tennessee later fired him for the cookout, the lying and the orchestrated cover-up. "I hurt my family. I hurt my staff's family. I hurt the [recruits]. I hurt a lot of people who believed in me. I embarrassed myself…"
He would go on and on. He's said the same thing for three years now, taking the punishment in standup fashion, regretting the millions of dollars he lost but reinventing himself as a businessman and television personality.
He's never shied away from his mistake. He gave speeches at Boys & Girls Clubs about the importance of always telling the truth. He broadcast games in college arenas where fans could heckle him (most seemed to instead gravitate to his personality).
He's never stopped talking about it, explaining it, apologizing for it.
His three-year show-cause penalty (essentially limiting his ability to recruit) ends in August. He called it his "three-year rehab" tour.
It ended Tuesday when Auburn, desperate to somehow, someway ignite its woeful basketball program, hired him to replace Tony Barbee, a young, promising coach who joined a long line of guys who couldn't make it work in football-obsessed, small-town Alabama.
Pearl will make it work, even if his NCAA penalties prevent him from recruiting off campus until August. If he can't make it work, maybe no one really can, at least consistently.
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs didn't see an NCAA rule violator on the market, but a coach of extreme talent, passion and personality. If nothing else, Bruce Pearl is a showman, the kind who will pump excitement into the program, sweeping up fans, recruits and media in the process.
It also speaks to the fact that even people inside college sports view many of these NCAA rules as ridiculous – rules, it needs to be noted, they, or people like them, wrote.
This started with a cookout? Really? And it involved Craft, perhaps the squarest college basketball player in the country, and his even more conservative family? That's cheating?
The NCAA drilled Pearl with significant sanctions, even as a slew of coaches who oversaw far greater rule-breaking managed to slip through on technicalities and deniability, even if it wasn't plausible. Everyone understood that. Auburn's current director of enforcement, essentially its in-house cop, is no less than Didion, the veteran NCAA enforcement staffer who along with Thompson, worked the original case.
It kind of says it all about the absurdity of the NCAA process.
So now Auburn has a proven winner and dynamic presence to run its basketball program.
What others see as a wasteland – an average of 14 victories a season since 2003 – Pearl no doubt views as a sleeping giant. Atlanta and its great pool of talent is less than two hours up Interstate 85. It's a pretty town, with a great campus and new facilities, so he'll recruit nationally. The fans are there waiting for a winner. Why wouldn't kids from anywhere want to come be a Tiger?
This is Bruce Pearl, after all, 54 years old in a life of defying all known conventional wisdom. He was a Jewish kid who went to Jesuit-run Boston College. He was a student manager who volunteered to wear the Eagles mascot costume for an NCAA tournament game.
He was the assistant at Iowa who was so fed up with what he believed was an illegal recruiting situation that he taped a phone call where the player claimed he was offered money by Illinois. The move started an NCAA investigation that landed both schools on probation and left Pearl persona non grata among many of his peers, the narc of assistant coaches. Dick Vitale labeled it "career suicide."
It was, sort of. Or would've been for anyone else.
Pearl bounced down to Southern Indiana, a Division II school in Evansville where he promptly won a national title in 1995 and averaged 26 wins a season over a nine-year run.
There was more, though. He made the Screaming Eagles relevant by filling the stands and drumming up interest. He was almost a one-man machine. He not only talked local television into running his weekly coach show (for a D-II coach?) and he not only sold the advertising himself, he sold so much of it the program was an hour long – twice that of major D-I coaches.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee finally brought him back to Division I and he delivered two NCAA appearances in four short years there, including a trip to the 2005 Sweet 16. That's when UT called and a SEC program was transformed.
The Vols went to six NCAA tournaments in six years, averaged 24 victories a season and became something on the national scene. It was all done with Pearl's unusual style.
In 2008, when second-ranked UT was playing at rival No. 1 Memphis in a hyped clash, Pearl showed up unexpectedly about an hour before the game at a bar where a Vol fan event was raging. No one does this.
Amidst delirious cheers, he took the microphone and declared, "All I know is we are 40 minutes away from being No. 1." Later, he delivered the classic "We're going to kick Memphis' ass!" Then he left to go coach.
Dean Smith he ain't.
Of course, the Vols won. And at the end of the game, as Memphis fans shuffled out of the FedEx Forum in silence, Pearl stood on the court in front of a small crowd of cheering UT supporters, asked for silence and right there in John Calipari's house screamed: "How 'bout them Vols!"
To say Tennessee fans loved him understates it. In the end, it was all undone by a cookout, a clumsy cover-up and an emailed snapshot.
"I'm proud of everything we did in Knoxville," Pearl always said. "Except for one thing. And that's what I've learned."
On Tuesday, Auburn made sure that's in the past now. This unusual career of this one-of-a-kind basketball personality is on track again. Everything is possible again.
Bruce Pearl is back. The Auburn Tigers are about to arrive.
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