Bruce Pearl In Trouble? Is Anyone Surprised?

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Not surprised in the least

Now we find Auburn coach Bruce Pearl refusing to co-operate with the investigators that Auburn hired to make certain that the bribery scandal that got assistant coach Chuck Person arrested did not involve anyone other than Person. This is the same Bruce Pearl who had to sit out coaching for five years because of a show-cause penalty that resulted from lying to the NCAA during an investigation of his recruiting at Tennessee. Auburn decided to hire Pearl practically the day his show-cause penalty expired. Who could imagine that wouldn’t work out?

When this scandal hit the fan last month, Urban Meyer was asked in an interview what he would recommend. Meyer’s response was that any coach who was found to have lied to the NCAA about recruiting violations should be banned for life from coaching college basketball. My first thought when I heard that was Meyer better be careful about what is going on in his house because statements like that give people license to gloat when you make a mistake.

With that said, I see the merit in what Meyer said. I have paid enough attention to how athletic programs function over the years to conclude that, if the NCAA decided to nail a program, it would find a violation, probably one serious enough to justify a serious penalty. It’s not that coaches are evil people, it’s that the rules are so byzantine that ensuring compliance is impossible. Consider that ever major football program has about 15 assistant coaches, another dozen folks in administrative positions, and maybe a hundred or so people who just hang around the program to bask in its reflected glory (and get good tickets). If anyone of those people breaks any of the zillion rules in the NCAA manual, the coach can take the hit, at least to his reputation.

Coaches can even commit violations themselves. After all, they are human beings, and like you and me (especially you), they do stupid stuff sometimes. There’s certainly a place for understanding and redemption for coaches who make mistakes. If the process of redemption involves losing some scholarships or staying home from the postseason for a year or two, that’s part of the price.

Bruce Pearl made some mistakes when he coached at Tennessee. They weren’t big mistakes, and there wasn’t any indication that corruption was rampant or that the NCAA was about to drop the hammer on him. He invited some recruits to a barbeque at his house, which is hardly a capital offense. But when the NCAA asked about it, Pearl lied. He didn’t bend over backwards to portray his actions in the most favorable light. He didn’t “accidentally” leave out information that might have made him look bad. Bruce Pearl was asked if he had done something and he said he hadn’t when he knew that he had, and the NCAA found proof of it. That should have been the end of Pearl’s career.

Perhaps, if nothing else, a lifetime ban for lying would protect schools from their worst instincts. Auburn’s judgment in hiring Pearl should receive a great deal of scrutiny. It’s easy to say that Pearl’s track record made them think he could get Auburn back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, although it hasn’t worked out that way. But is that the only criteria they should have used? While any coach can get a program on probation, it seems more likely to happen with a coach that has already been on probation. That’s why people who have had a few wrecks pay more for car insurance.

Beyond that, one of the things a school should be looking for in a coach is a role model. Maybe kids have already seen so much by the time they get to college with AAU and shoe companies hounding them that playing for a guy like Pearl is no big deal. But at some level, we should still remember that these are kids, and hiring Pearl to coach them sends a message that winning matters more than character. Fortunately, judging from the results thus far in his tenure, recruits haven’t bought into that message.

One more thing. When Pearl got the boot from Tennessee, he settled into a cushy gig at ESPN and made big bucks waiting out his suspension. As an entity that gets a huge portion of its revenue from college sports, it is not in the interest of ESPN or the sport to give a platform to someone who made a mockery of ethical standards. If the Auburn mess follows its most likely trajectory, ESPN will have an opportunity to revisit this decision. Let’s hope they choose more wisely this time.

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