There is a sheen that always seems to glisten on Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
You see, he sweats. A lot.
He mostly keeps his suit jacket on during games, but Pearl peeled it off in the second half a regional final victory over Kentucky to reveal a drenched dress shirt. And since he doesn’t pack extras, Pearl wore that same damp shirt all the way back to Alabama, then to the Tigers’ home arena for a party to celebrate the first Final Four trip in school history.
“He didn’t stink,” Tigers forward Anfernee McLemore recalled. “I promise.”
Yet there are plenty of people who think he does.
Pearl has earned a reputation for running afoul of the NCAA, starting with an incident during his days at an assistant at Iowa. It grew during his time at Tennessee, where a litany of violations earned him a three-year show-cause penalty, and has accompanied him to Auburn, where two of his assistants have been ensnared in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption.
That sheen? Detractors joke it’s from the slime Pearl always seems to find.
But those closest to him have a much different take. They see a coach who gives up his first-class seat on the plane for his players, and a guy who took his team to an elementary school for an uplifting visit when its students were still reeling from the tornados that tore through Alabama.
They freely admit he has faults, but rightly point out that everybody has them. And while many of his mistakes have been misguided, they argue some have been blown out proportion.
“That’s part of sports,” said Pearl’s son and assistant, Steven Pearl. “You have to understand some people have their agendas. They’re trying to get likes and clicks and that’s a way to do it.
“Anybody who has spent time with Bruce knows his heart and passion and character,” the young Pearl added, “and those who haven’t can write those kinds of stories.”
There are plenty of them to write.
Thirty years ago, Pearl became embroiled in his first scandal when he lost out on top prospect Deon Thomas to Illinois. Pearl responded by calling the recruit and secretly recording a conversation in which Thomas seemed to indicate he’d been offered cash by then-Illini assistant Jimmy Collins.
Pearl turned the tapes over to the NCAA, triggering an investigation. No wrongdoing was found in Thomas’s recruitment, but other violations were found and the Illini landed on probation. Years later, Pearl became coach of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Collins took over Horizon League-rival Illinois-Chicago, and the resentment lingered — they never did shake hands after a game.
Pearl’s success at Milwaukee earned him the job at Tennessee, and he quickly turned around what had long been considered a football school. But in the summer of 2008, he invited prep prospect Aaron Craft to his home for a barbecue while on an unofficial visit. Pearl knew it was an NCAA violation, and he even encouraged those in attendance to keep it under wraps.
It was Pearl who wound up lying about the incident. That turned a relatively minor infraction into a major one. And when additional violations were found, Pearl was fired by Tennessee.
The NCAA also gave him a three-year show-cause penalty, forcing Pearl into basketball purgatory. But when that expired, Auburn came calling with an offer to return to the SEC.
Pearl quickly turned around the Tigers, just like he did the Vols. But then last season, associate head coach Chuck Person was ensnared in the FBI probe and subsequently fired, and eligibility questions were raised about for Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two members of this year’s Final Four team.
Both sat out all of last season, though the Tigers still captured the regular-season SEC title.
“It was difficult,” Pearl acknowledged, “but I knew all that I knew and I knew all that I didn’t know. So therefore, I was comfortable that if we stayed the course, we were going to be fine.”
The FBI investigation stopped short of reaching Pearl, and he brushed off any concerns it might.
“Just trust me on this one. I’m going to be OK in this,” he said this week. “That doesn’t make what happened right, and certainly there have been very severe penalties, both people in coaching as well as student-athletes. But our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like that. And when we don’t do our job, there are consequences. But I didn’t think it would disrupt our program.”
Perhaps because all that sweat has given Pearl a Teflon-like coating.
Or maybe because of the belief his players have in him.
“He doesn’t hide anything. What you see is everything we know,” said the Tigers’ Samir Doughty. “He is definitely big on what the players want, more so than what you probably think. You probably think all he does is yell at us, but he holds no grudges. He’ll be your friend 5 seconds later.”
Doughty points to Pearl’s vast charity work, and the way his Jewish faith has helped to shape the way he lives his life. He is a genius on the sideline, Doughty said, but his real intelligence comes with knowing how to encourage and instill confidence in a group of underdogs.
“That’s how we succeed in this tournament,” Doughty said. “He gives us the perfect formula.”
The perfect formula from an imperfect person.
“People try to use his past against him all the time,” Steven Pearl said, “but the second a kid meets Bruce, they just light up. Kids have always gravitated toward coach. They probably always will.”