Fi­nal Four runs don’t mask prob­lems in col­lege sports

The Tribune (SLO) - - Sports - BY ED­DIE PELLS

One team’s coach got kicked out of the sport for three years, and two of his as­sis­tants have been named in bribery scan­dals. An­other team’s coach is the most high­pro­file name in an ath­letic de­part­ment scarred by its han­dling of a mas­sive sex-abuse scan­dal.

Few would ar­gue Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Michi­gan State’s Tom Izzo shouldn’t be at the Fi­nal Four. But some of the prob­lems they’ve faced in their past of­fer sober­ing re­minders about is­sues that can’t be erased by a mag­i­cal run through March Mad­ness.

“I knew what I knew, and I knew all that I didn’t know,” Pearl said Thurs­day, when asked about the trou­bles en­velop­ing his as­sis­tants. “So there­fore, I was com­fort­able that if we stayed the course, that we were go­ing to be fine.”

Auburn is more than fine as it gets ready for Satur­day’s na­tional semi­fi­nal against Virginia.

But at around the same time the Tigers were revving up for what turned into the pro­gram’s first trip to the Fi­nal Four, for­mer as­sis­tant Chuck Per­son was plead­ing guilty to con­spir­acy charges for ac­cept­ing bribes to steer NBA-cal­iber play­ers to a fi­nan­cial ad­viser. That same week, Auburn placed Per­son’s re­place­ment, as­sis­tant Ira Bow­man, on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave while it in­ves­ti­gated al­le­ga­tions that he was in­volved in a bribery scheme at his pre­vi­ous job at Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

While Pearl, the 58year-old coach­ing lifer, hasn’t taken of­fense to those who might ques­tion his judg­ment for hir­ing those coaches, he’s been a lit­tle more prickly with those who want to re­live his past.

He was fired at Ten­nessee in 2011 for bring­ing a re­cruit to a bar­be­cue at his house – a vi­o­la­tion made worse by the fact he lied about it, and asked oth­ers to do the same. It branded him with a three­year NCAA “show cause” penalty – the equiv­a­lent of be­ing com­pletely kicked out of bas­ket­ball.

Auburn took a chance as the sanc­tion was ex­pir­ing. Pearl bris­tled a bit – then later apol­o­gized for bristling – at a ques­tion at the start of the tour­na­ment ask­ing if he won­dered if he’d ever get an­other chance.

“So, I ba­si­cally have been coach­ing my whole life. And so you’re go­ing to ask me a ques­tion about the three years I wasn’t coach­ing?” Pearl said.

Like it or not, it’s part of his re­sume. His son, Steven, who serves as an as­sis­tant for Auburn, said his dad al­ways wanted to get back into the game.

“It was just a mat­ter of where,” Steven Pearl said. “Do you have to jump into a mid-ma­jor and work your way back up, or does some­one like Auburn take a chance on a coach like that and bring him back in?”

For Izzo, it was never a mat­ter of be­ing wel­comed in, but rather, whether he might be look­ing for a way out.

Michi­gan State has been the epi­cen­ter of the scan­dal in­volv­ing Larry Nas­sar, the for­mer team doc­tor who sex­u­ally abused hun­dreds of gym­nasts and other fe­male ath­letes. Though Izzo says he didn’t know Nas­sar, the scan­dal put ev­ery facet of Michi­gan State’s ath­let­ics pro­gram un­der the mi­cro­scope.

Izzo came un­der scru­tiny for not prop­erly deal­ing with mem­bers of his pro­gram ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault. In de­tail­ing some of those cases, an ESPN re­port linked Izzo and foot­ball coach Mark Dan­to­nio to Nas­sar in a graphic with the ti­tle “Hid­den Se­crets.”

In the end, no crim­i­nal charges were filed. The NCAA has cleared Michi­gan State, and both Izzo and the pro­gram were deemed to have han­dled the cases prop­erly.

“It wasn’t about what hap­pened, it was about a pic­ture that will go down the rest of my life as the low­est part of my life, to be on there with a pe­dophile like I was on there with,” Izzo said last fall.

De­spite that, the Nas­sar scan­dal has left an in­deli­ble taint at Michi­gan State. The ath­let­ics di­rec­tor, the univer­sity pres­i­dent and that pres­i­dent’s re­place­ment are all gone. Michi­gan State has set­tled law­suits by the gym­nasts to the tune of $500 mil­lion.

When the words “Michi­gan State” come up in the head­lines these days, they’re ev­ery bit as likely to be about the Nas­sar scan­dal as any­thing Izzo and his bas­ket­ball pro­gram are ac­com­plish­ing.

No­body would’ve blamed the coach for leav­ing, ei­ther for the NBA or for a com­fort­able re­tire­ment.

But he pre­ferred to stay, in the hopes he could be part of the so­lu­tion at Michi­gan State.

“We’ve been through a lot here,” Izzo said ear­lier this week, not­ing the sup­port the team has re­ceived for its run. “It’s part of the process of peo­ple just ex­press­ing the plat­form we have, and what it can do in a pos­i­tive way. And if I can be a small part of it, that’s as good as it gets.”

Bruce Pearl

Tom Izzo

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