AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Bruce Pearl opened this college basketball season with a renewed confidence that he insists didn’t falter even after his top assistant coach was indicted as part of a federal investigation that cost two of Auburn’s best players their eligibility.
Even with his success on the court, his job security remains an open question.
He has led the 19th-ranked Tigers to their first Southeastern Conference regular season title since 1999 and ended a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought despite the troubling backdrop.
But even with his outsized personality, the coach who had almost annual forays to the NCAA Tournament started to waver about this time last year on whether he was the person to get the Tigers to that coveted destination.
“I thought that this team was hard-working enough, talented enough, experienced enough and by golly they did it,” Pearl said.
And the 2,000-mile journey that No. 4 seed Auburn (25-7) will make to play College of Charleston (26-7) Friday night in the Midwest Region in San Diego seems fitting considering the odyssey Pearl and this team have been through.
While it is Auburn’s second-highest NCAA seed behind the top-seeded 1999 team that reached the Sweet Sixteen, a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over Pearl and the Auburn program. It’s lingered since the arrest of Chuck Person, a former Tigers star and NBA player who was charged in the widespread federal probe into college basketball corruption. Person allegedly accepted bribes to steer players to a financial advisor once they turned pro and funneled money to the families of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Neither played this season.
Two support staffers were also placed on leave.
Pearl has yet to submit to a formal interview with a law firm conducting an internal review of his program. That will presumably come after the season. At that time, President Steven Leath and new athletic director Allen Greene could possibly determine his fate.
Leath issued a statement to the AP, calling it “an incredible season for Auburn basketball,” but declining to discuss a timetable.
“Athletics director Allen Greene and I are working through the NCAA process, and it’s not appropriate that we comment further at this time on that process,” Leath said.
Pearl has been down this road before.
The coach’s history with the NCAA could make his Auburn situation even more precarious. He was also at the center of recruiting issue in the late 1980s, when he said then-Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins offered Deon Thomas money and a car.
Pearl, an Iowa assistant at the time, secretly taped a conversation he had with Thomas and handed it over to the NCAA. Collins was cleared of the charges and said years later he received an apology from Pearl .
Auburn hired Pearl four years ago when he still had several months left under the show-cause penalty from his time at Tennessee.
Pearl was cited for unethical conduct for lying to NCAA investigators in June 2010 about improperly hosting recruits at his home, resulting in a three-year show-cause penalty.
Hoping for a happier ending this time, Pearl maintains that he practiced what he’s constantly preached this season to his team: Focus only on what you can control.
“I try not to worry about that stuff,” Pearl said. “My focus was this team, these players, this university. And the other stuff is a process that you have to go through. It’s no fun, but it’s something that happens and you go through it. I’m confident that when we get to the other side, we’re going to be OK.
“And I’ll still be the basketball coach at Auburn.”
If that proves true, Pearl’s program should be on a strong footing, particularly if Wiley — a top 10 recruitwhose parents both starred at Auburn — returns. The NCAA has ruled that the former five-star recruit will be eligible next season, though neither Auburn nor college athletics’ governing the NCAA have shed light on Purifoy’s status.
If the team is concerned about Pearl’s future, it hasn’t affected Auburn’s play.
“He tells us just to not worry about that and focus on the big picture and focus on what we can control,” Bryce Brown, a first-team Associated Press All-SEC guard, said. “We haven’t been focusing on if he’s going to be here, we haven’t been focusing on next year. We’ve been focusing on what’s in front of us right now, and that’s College of Charleston.”
Getting to this point has been a fairly long road for Pearl & Co. The Tigers went just 16-38 in SEC games over his first three seasons.
Pearl, who probably merits coach of the year consideration after making his 19th postseason appearance, had led Wisconsin-Milwaukee into the NCAA tourney in his second season and Tennessee in his first.
Then came Auburn and a daunting rebuilding process . A relentless salesman off the court, Pearl managed to draw big crowds — and a string of season ticket sellouts — to Auburn Arena before the wins started coming. He pieced together rosters with help from graduate and junior college transfers.
The Tigers did go 18-14 last season after heading into SEC play at 10-2. They were once again stuck at home in the postseason, though.
“If I had my doubts, it had less to do with doubts that Auburn could get there than doubts about whether I could get Auburn there,” Pearl said. “While we made progress, I wasn’t satisfied with the mojo that I had.
“I had done a little better job a little quicker at other stops and I began to question myself a little bit as to whether or not what we did was working.”
Now that it’s working, it’s unclear if Pearl will be around to finish the job.