Greenstein: In defense of Bruce Pearl, no one in college basketball plays the game better

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Greenstein: In defense of Bruce Pearl, no one in college basketball plays the game better

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl yells from the sidelines during the region semifinal game vs. North Carolina

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl yells from the sidelines during the region semifinal game vs. North Carolina

Orlin Wagner/Star Tribune/TNS

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl yells from the sidelines during the region semifinal game vs. North Carolina

Orlin Wagner/Star Tribune/TNS

Orlin Wagner/Star Tribune/TNS

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl yells from the sidelines during the region semifinal game vs. North Carolina

By Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune

The first time I met Bruce Pearl, I approached with an empty notebook and an open mind. The year was 1995, and we broke bread at a breakfast nook in Evansville, Ind.

In the minds of Illinois fans, he already was tainted. ESPN’s Dick Vitale called him a pariah who had committed “coaching suicide” by surreptitiously recording Simeon star and Illini recruit Deon Thomas.

But Pearl’s explanation of the events made sense to me. Maybe because I was dying for them to make sense to me. You spend time with Bruce Pearl, you fall under his spell.

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The nation’s top basketball coaches are slick. They could sell a Samsung phone to Tim Cook.

At its highest level, college basketball is both a beautiful thing and a dirty business. Pearl is playing the game better than anyone.

He has been caught cheating. He has been punished. And he keeps on winning.

Just look at Bill Self, Roy Williams, John Calipari. Why do you think the national media don’t pile on when scandal hits? Sure, part of it is news judgment — the bigger story would be if they got five-star players without dropping some candy.

It’s also their charm. Pearl could win over a room full of Democrats at breakfast and have Republicans eating out of his hand at lunch.

He’s a chameleon. His Boston accent is revealed when he pronounces college basketball’s sweetest month: “Mahhhhhch.”

But he’s thriving in the Deep South and also crushed it in rural Indiana, Milwaukee and Knoxville, Tenn. His assistant coaching stops were at Stanford and Iowa.

He’s Jewish but currently playing to the Bible Belt. His opening statement Sunday after guiding Auburn to its first Final Four: “Just thank God for the blessings.”

A couple of days earlier he half-joked to ESPN anchor/betting maven Scott Van Pelt about playing North Carolina: “Take the over.”

“I believe that’s a first here,” Van Pelt replied, “in these more gambling-friendly times.”

The over hit.

Auburn reached the Final Four by surviving a duel with New Mexico State and cleaning out Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — the three winningest programs in college basketball history.

Until Pearl arrived, Auburn basketball was Charles Barkley, Chuck Person and killing time until spring football.

Pearl’s teams win with maniacal defense — the Tigers led the SEC in steals — and a devotion to raining 3s. They’re second nationally in attempts (1,083, 30.1 per game) and first in makes (408, 11.3).

But mostly they win because Pearl won’t let them lose. His 1995 Southern Indiana team trailed UC Riverside 30-8 in the Division II national championship game. The halftime score was 39-21. The Screaming Eagles won 71-63.

“Getting down by that much was tough,” Pearl told me over eggs 24 years ago. “But I had already been through much worse.”

His explanation for what went down in the Deon Thomas scandal makes sense: Pearl believed Illinois was offering cash and a Chevy Blazer and reported that to his boss, Iowa coach Tom Davis. The school gave Pearl a recording device, and the NCAA demanded he turn over the tapes during its investigation.

“Look, I was the guy who cooperated with the NCAA in the Illinois investigation,” Pearl said. “And I did some things in the course of that that I was uncomfortable with.”

(Thomas, a Big Ten Network and Illinois basketball analyst, told me last year it was Iowa that offered the inducement: “It was tempting. When it would rain or the snow would melt, we had to put pots down (in our home). But my grandmother told me she did not trust Bruce Pearl’s eyes. That was the end.”)

Pearl got clipped at Tennessee after lying to the NCAA about a barbecue. Aaron Craft, who already had verbally committed, was in Knoxville on an unofficial visit. He and his father asked if they could come by the house. That was a no-no per NCAA rules, but Pearl said yes.

Someone took a picture of Craft at Pearl’s house, and the photo got in the hands of NCAA investigators. Pearl told me his assistant coaches pleaded ignorance when presented with the photos, and he did not want to contradict them. Now that’s not kosher, but I understand the rationale.

Pearl got a “show-cause” penalty in 2011, essentially banning him from the sport for three years. Auburn still hired him with five months left on the penalty, meaning he could not meet or even contact recruits during that stretch.

“We teach student-athletes that if you make a mistake, there are consequences,” then-Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said in 2015. “It doesn’t matter if you are 15 or 55.”

Now as for the latest, uh, hullabaloo? Oh, boy. One Auburn assistant coach, Person, a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, pleaded guilty to taking bribes to steer players to a Pittsburgh-based financial adviser. Another Auburn assistant, Ira Bowman, was suspended indefinitely over a bribery scandal at Penn, where he coached from 2012 to ‘18.

Last week a USA Today column ran under this headline: “Auburn’s Bruce Pearl symbolizes the rot in college athletics.”

That’s a valid opinion. It’s just not mine.

Pearl’s best player against North Carolina was forward Chuma Okeke, an ace defender who scored 20 points on 11 shots. He blew out his knee and got replaced in the starting lineup by Horace Spencer, who didn’t score a point against Kentucky. And Auburn still won.

Amazing.

If the Tigers win twice more and Pearl cuts down the nets in Minneapolis, it would make for a pretty good “30 for 30,” no?

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