Un­cer­tain fu­ture for Pearl, Auburn

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

AUBURN, Ala. — 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 SEC 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) on 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 show­cause 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 re­cruit whose par­ents both starred at Auburn — re­turns. The NCAA has ruled that the for­mer fives­tar 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 the Tigers, who went just 16-38 in SEC games over Pearl’s 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 Tour­na­ment 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.


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