Posted: 8:50 am Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
By Mark Bradley
Georgia took a risk on Jim Harrick, who’d been fired by UCLA (and then hired by Rhode Island) for lying to his bosses. Louisville just took a risk on Bobby Petrino, who’d been fired by Arkansas (and then hired by Western Kentucky) for … well, you know. So it was no great surprise that Auburn — the school that took a second chance on Cam Newton and Nick Marshall — just hired Bruce Pearl to coach basketball.
Lots of media people really like Bruce Pearl, who had– but of course! — worked for ESPN after getting fired by Tennessee for lying to the NCAA. I’m not among them. I’ve never gotten past him taping a phone call with recruit Deon Thomas that was intended to prove that Jimmy Collins, then an Illinois assistant, had offered Thomas what Pearl, having appointed himself investigator-in-chief, believed were improper inducements. (Pearl was then an Iowa assistant.) The famous Dick Vitale, who never met a coach he wouldn’t defend, found it hard to defend Pearl then, saying he’d committed “career suicide.”
With Pearl, however, there’s apparently no such thing. Even after getting caught in a lie regarding the recruitment of Aaron Craft, now at Ohio State, Pearl just got himself hired for $14.7 million. (Pearl’s lie: He told investigators he didn’t recognize the place where a cookout was being held, even though photos proved the place was his home. That wasn’t just a bad lie — it was an unbelievably dumb one.)
After Tennessee fired him, Pearl was slapped with the dreaded show-cause penalty by the NCAA, which means that any school wishing to hire that coach over the sanctioned period — Pearl’s was three years, which hasn’t yet expired — would have to go before the NCAA and give a good reason why. But Auburn, which leads the world in compliance officials, had hired David Didion, who was the lead NCAA investigator on Pearl’s case, and that dollop of serendipity was being cited last week at the SEC tournament by another conference athletic director as to why Pearl-to-Auburn was all but a done deal.
Six days after firing Tony Barbee in an Atlanta hotel after an SEC tournament loss — even Southern Cal waited until Lane Kiffin returned from Tempe before firing him on the airport tarmac — the Tigers hired Pearl. His many media allies are treating this as a case of a good guy who did a bad thing being handed a deserved second chance, and Pearl, who’s quite the charmer, has hit some of the proper notes. “I’m truly humbled and blessed,” he said. Then he started bragging about the size of his contract, which tossed aside the “humble” part.
Nobody questions that Pearl is a good coach. He took Tennessee to the NCAA tournament six years running. But the longtime consensus has been that Auburn ranks alongside Ole Miss as the worst job in the SEC. The Tigers have run through four coaches since Sonny Smith resigned in 1989, and only one of them — Cliff Ellis, who has been everywhere and is now at Coastal Carolina, which is in the NCAA field — was able to take Auburn to the Big Dance. Ellis was fired in 2004, one season after a Sweet Sixteen appearance; not incidentally, the NCAA was investigating the Tigers’ recruiting.
Which is, sad to say, the way of Auburn basketball. In 2000, Chris Porter — the best Tiger player since the days of Charles Barkley and Chuck Person — was ruled ineligible for the final eight games after it was revealed that he’d accepted $2,500 from an agent. The Tigers had entered that season ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated, which featured Porter on its cover. In 2012, guard Varez Ward was suspended by Barbee ahead of a point-shaving investigation. Ward was indicted the next year. In February he entered a pre-trial diversion program.
Given the peculiar nature of Auburn sports — Terry Bowden quit as football coach in the middle of a season; school officials approached Petrino, then in his first stint at Louisville, about replacing Tommy Tuberville while the latter was still employed; Gene Chizik was fired two years after leading the Tigers to a BCS title with Newton — I’m not sure this is the place for Pearl. Strange things happen in the Loveliest Village, and Pearl, who’s visible and voluble, isn’t one to shutter himself in the gym.
Back to Harrick: The charming rogue had Georgia basketball in the Top 25 when Tony Cole went on ESPN. Within two weeks, the school pulled its team from both the 2003 SEC and the NCAA tournaments. Not saying that all second chances for proven liars will meet such an egregious end. But it did seem worth mentioning.