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Bruce Pearl’s ‘career suicide’ at Iowa was 648 victories ago
Former Iowa assistant has won a lot and had a 3-year exile from coaching. Here he is 31 years after leaving Iowa, facing the Hawkeyes in the NCAA tourney Thursday.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Bruce Pearl’s 63rd birthday is Saturday, and the Iowa men’s basketball team hopes he observes it two hours from here in Auburn rather than here.
Pearl’s Auburn team stands between the Hawkeyes and an NCAA tournament victory Thursday at Legacy Arena. Everyone who knows anything about college basketball is aware you should never count Pearl out.
But he has been. Again and again. To give you all the examples would require an encyclopedia, not a book. And not “The Encyclopedia of the Full Court Pressure Defense,” a set of three Pearl videos that are a lecture series.
The first time Pearl’s coaching future appeared in free-fall was at Iowa in the late 1980s. Ancient history, but an early piece of proof that Pearl never stayed down despite situations that suggested otherwise.
Tom Davis’ Iowa staff and Lou Henson’s Illinois crew recruited Chicago prep Deon Thomas hard. Thomas chose the Illini. Pearl recorded a phone conversation in which he asked Thomas if he received cash and an SUV from Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins, and turned the tape over to the NCAA.
Thomas claimed he said yes to Pearl’s questions to get rid of him. Thomas made accusations of his own about Pearl.
“Career suicide,” ESPN’s Dick Vitale declared Pearl’s action on national television.
It made for an extremely ugly feud between the two programs that didn’t remotely begin to settle down until Pearl left Iowa to become the head coach at Division II Southern Indiana in 1992.
Thomas went on to become Illinois’ all-time leading scorer with 2,129 points. But the NCAA’s investigation of the Illini program that began with the Pearl-Thomas business veered into other areas, and Illinois was handed a one-year postseason ban and recruiting restrictions.
The Hawkeyes had some great times on the court while Pearl was with Davis from 1986 to 1992. The last Elite Eight Iowa team was 1987. So was its last No. 1 ranking.
Where Pearl would normally have been seen as a strong candidate for attractive Division I head coaching jobs, he instead was a pariah to D-I athletic directors. So the first place he ran a program was Southern Indiana, 10-18 the season before he arrived in 1992.
Pearl went to Evansville and created a D-II power. The Screaming Eagles were the national runner-up in 1994 and national champ the next year. Pearl was there until 2001, after he had a compiled a record of 231-46.
But it took until 2001 for Pearl to get a Division I offer he found agreeable, when he went to UW Milwaukee. He went 86-38 in four years, the last one ending at the Sweet 16.
Then he was off to Tennessee in 2005, and soon had the men’s program there as popular as Pat Summitt’s women’s basketball dynasty, a considerable achievement.
Tennessee was ranked No. 1 for a week in 2008 and was No. 5 at season’s end. Things unraveled not long afterward. An NCAA investigation brought the program down. Pearl was charged with recruiting violations, unethical conduct for lying to the NCAA — a pile of infractions.
Tennessee fired him in March 2011. The NCAA gave Pearl a three-year show-cause penalty, effectively making him unhireable in college ball. That would have been an inglorious closing coaching chapter for many. But there’s always someone who will be drawn to a proven winner.
In 2014, as Pearl’s penalty neared its end, Auburn swooped him up. The build was slow there, but sure. The Tigers won 30 games and reached the Final Four in 2019. Last season, they went 27-5 and enjoyed the first No. 1 ranking in program history for three weeks. They won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
Last January, Pearl was given an eight-year contract extension worth $50.2 million.
“In addition to Auburn’s remarkable on-court success under his leadership,” said then-school athletic director Allen Greene, “Coach Pearl has tirelessly championed Auburn athletics and Auburn University while serving our community in countless ways. This extension ensures that Auburn’s commitment to Coach Pearl matches BP’s commitment to Auburn.”
Career suicide? A $50 million deal, and 648 wins in 28 seasons as a head coach? More like delayed gratification.
Two years ago, Pearl was honored at Vitale’s annual gala in Florida to raise millions for pediatric cancer.
“I will tell you right now that Mr. Pearl and Mrs. Pearl, they are awesome, baby, with a capital A!” Vitale said.
Here Pearl is in Birmingham, his state. He’s trying to get his team past the Hawkeyes Thursday. He is 31 years removed from Iowa, but some people aren’t easily forgotten.
“I loved my time at Iowa,” Pearl said Wednesday. “I always hoped the Iowa fans would look at me and say ‘He was one of us. He was a Hawkeye. And he’s gone on and done well.’”