Bruce Pearl, deep in thought.
Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

A troubling sign of the times: Auburn extends Pearl’s contract

On April 25, the Rice Commission – chaired by Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State – offered its recommendations as to how college basketball might cleanse itself. One suggestion was to levy harsher penalties against offending coaches, including longer sanctions and the possibility of a lifetime ban. 

On Monday, Auburn announced it had extended Bruce Pearl’s contract. 

Bruce Pearl was fired by Tennessee for lying to NCAA investigators about a recruit attending a barbecue at Pearl’s Knoxville home, even though the NCAA had photos. He was hired by Auburn while still serving a show-cause penalty. Last fall, Auburn fired assistant coach Chuck Person after his arrest and indictment by the Feds; placed two other staffers on administrative leave; had two players ruled ineligible by the NCAA and was moved to warn Pearl that continuing refusal to cooperate with a school investigation could cost him his job. Now Auburn has handed Pearl five more years. 

As tempting as it is to deem this yet another example of Auburn Being Auburn, Pearl’s extension has wider and more worrying ramifications. Last season began under the cloud of an FBI investigation that cost Louisville’s Rick Pitino his job. In late February, Yahoo Sports reported the names of players/schools mentioned in the Feds’ findings, many of which were huge. ESPN reported that Arizona coach Sean Miller had been taped discussing a payment to then-recruit Deandre Ayton, who’ll surely be the No. 1 pick in this month’s NBA draft. 

By the time the Final Four convened in San Antonio, the sky-is-falling narrative had begun to yield to sobering reality. Cal State-Northridge had just hired Mark Gottfried as its coach. Gottfried was fired by North Carolina State a year earlier. Former N.C. State player Dennis Smith Jr. was named as a recipient of a $73,500 loan from an agency led by Andy Miller, a key figure in the FBI investigation. According to Pat Forde and Pete Thamel of Yahoo, Miller has close ties with Gottfried. 

Gottfried would name Jim Harrick, his former UCLA boss, as his assistant. Harrick was fired in Westwood for lying to his superiors. He resigned at Georgia in the wake of Tony Cole’s allegations of impermissible benefits, which prompted the Bulldogs to remove themselves from the 2003 SEC and NCAA tournaments.

About here, you might be saying, “It’s Cal Northridge – who cares?” (Side note: After Reggie Theus, briefly an Atlanta Hawk, was fired as the Matadors’ coach in March, he filed a battery complaint against athletic director Brandon Martin, who was himself fired.) But Northridge’s move to hire Gottfried and then Harrick served to indicate that, far from ducking and covering, college programs were conducting business as usual, which should be the last thing a sport under siege would want. 

Forty days after the Rice Commission told the NCAA, “Here’s what you need to do,” nothing has changed. Miller remains in place at Arizona, even as his former assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson awaits trial in Federal court. Of the first dozen NBA draftees, 10 could be one-and-dones. And now Auburn rewards Pearl.

Yes, the Tigers won a share of the SEC regular-season title. Yes, they should begin next season as a top 10 team. Yes, Pearl is a good coach. But note what Auburn AD Allen Greene said last week at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla.: “So long as (Pearl) has done things the right way and we don’t learn anything more and he continues to do what he’s been doing, then we’re fine moving forward.” 

Those wiggle words could apply to the entire sport: “So long … as we don’t learn anything more.” 

At the Final Four, NCAA president Mark Emmert said: “Everybody involved in college basketball recognizes this can’t continue the way it’s continuing.” A month later, Rice presented the report Emmert commissioned by noting: “The actual root cause of the problem (is) governance and leadership lapses. … These are the people who are most responsible for giving (student-athletes) a chance to achieve a college education and a college degree – and have instead given in to the incentives to ‘win at all cost.’ That behavior has too often been ignored and inadequately punished.” 

When we see Cal Northridge hire Gottfried/Harrick, when we see Pearl given five more years, we’re seeing a powerful hint that schools believe the FBI investigation won’t amount to much. The charges have been brought for fraud, but who’s defrauded if a player or his family gets money from a shoe company via an agent or an AAU coach? How might Federal indictments translate to NCAA sanctions? By the time these cases are adjudicated, every player mentioned will have turned pro and be beyond NCAA jurisdiction: What’s their motivation to tell the truth? 

The Feds brought to light the seamy side of college basketball, but there are so many entities involved in the sport – shoe companies, agents, the AAU, the NBA and its players association and, not incidentally, the NCAA and its member schools – that some have deemed the commission’s road map beyond navigation. That said … 

If change is going to come, it must start with the schools and their coaches. Pearl was fired by Tennessee for breaking NCAA rules. He was just granted an extension by Auburn, which – not for the first time in school history – finds itself at the center of a storm over recruiting methods and player eligibility.

Auburn has decided that a winning coach is worth keeping, appearances be hanged. That’s not just Auburn Being Auburn. That’s college basketball being college basketball.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.