Auburn coach Bruce Pearl gives instructions to his team against the Missouri Tigers during the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 14, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Auburn’s Bruce Pearl trade-off: poised for March run with another assistant in trouble

The Tigers wobbled a bit in February, but are primed for March. After going one-and-done in three consecutive SEC tournaments, the Tigers wore down Missouri to win their opener. Auburn has won seven of its past eight games. 

Beat South Carolina on Friday, and the Tigers (23-9) likely will face No. 1 seed LSU in the semifinals Saturday. Auburn is deep and experienced. The Tigers are a threat to win this tournament and then advance to the second weekend of the next one, at least.

Auburn will try to do it with a cloud of impropriety hanging over the program because, of course. 

Auburn suspended assistant coach Ira Bowman on Wednesday as it investigates his alleged role in a federal bribery scheme when he was a Penn assistant. Former Penn coach Jerome Allen testified in federal court Friday that Bowman was aware that a parent paid Allen to get his son a preferred athletic admission. Allen alleges that Bowman later ran the scheme himself. 

It’s not clear if this will end up affecting Pearl or Auburn. We’ll see what happens with the investigation, which Pearl and Auburn comically took pains not to call an investigation. 

In the meantime, maybe the drama will end up helping the Tigers. This kind of thing never seems to faze them. They have plenty of experience with it. 

In September 2017 Auburn associate head coach Chuck Person was arrested on fraud and bribery charges for allegedly taking money to steer players to a financial adviser. Person pleaded not guilty, and the case is scheduled for trial.

Pearl initially didn’t cooperate with Auburn’s probe of the Person allegations. Then he led the Tigers to their best season in 15 years, concluding with a run to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Then Auburn gave Pearl a contract extension. 

It was another signal that Auburn is all-in on Pearl. It will probably stay that way for as long as Pearl wins and the dirt doesn’t stick directly to him. The Tigers figure they might as well ride this Pearl era out and see where it takes them.

Auburn paid a reputational cost when it hired Pearl in 2014. At the time he was under an NCAA show-cause order for violations at Tennessee. That typically makes coaches untouchable, but Auburn decided to pay that price. It paid some more with the Person scandal. 

This latest business with Bowman is the latest cost. An assistant getting in hot water for something they do at a previous job may not make much of a ripple at other programs. It does at Auburn because Pearl is the head coach. 

Those are the drawbacks to having Pearl as your head coach. The potential rewards are clear. 

Auburn’s 2018 NCAA run was its longest since it went to the Sweet 16 in 2003 with coach Cliff Ellis. That was the last time the Tigers had even been in the NCAA tournament. Now they are poised to go in back-to-back seasons, which last happened when teams filled with future pros did it in 1999 and 200. 

The current Auburn team has two good NBA prospects, forward Chuma Okeke and center Austin Wiley. (Wiley has been out much of the season because of injury but Pearl says there’s still a chance he returns this postseason.) Auburn’s Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are the kind of seasoned and tough guards that are especially valuable this time of year. 

Auburn already has lost more games than last season, but this team is peaking at a time when that team faded. Last weekend the Tigers beat Tennessee, a Final Four contender. On Thursday, Auburn overwhelmed Missouri with depth, pace and 3-pointers. 

That’s what Pearl’s teams have always done. I covered him when he got his first shot as a Division I coach at Milwaukee in 2001. He’d toiled for nine seasons at Division II Southern Indiana after he was ostracized from coaching circles for turning in Illinois for alleged recruiting violations. 

It was obvious then back them that Pearl is a good coach and a good quote. His teams play an exciting, fast-paced style that he learned while working for legendary coach Tom Davis at Iowa. Pearl is energetic and personable. 

These are the reasons Auburn hired Pearl with all his baggage. It’s why they’ve continued to carry the weight when as he adds more. Pearl can win at places that hardly ever win and sell a program that not many are buying. 

Pearl is doing that for Auburn, which has decided he’s worth the PR hits. Whether you agree may depend on your tolerance for the seedier side of college sports that everyone knows exists. And now, for a new twist, we have Allen admitting that he got paid to take a player rather than the other way around. 

Chances are a deep March run by the Tigers would make everyone forget about Bowman’s alleged role in that scheme. Auburn was counting on that kind of trade-off when it hired Pearl. It could pay off big this month.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.