KANSAS CITY – The Final Four berth was obviously sweet for Bruce Pearl. It was his first but it’s the path traveled that made this even more festive and momentous. There was the three-year show-cause penalty that forced him away from coaching, the FBI investigation involving his assistant coach that claimed two players a year ago and then Chuma Okeke, Auburn’s most talented player, went down with a torn ACL just two days ago.
Pearl wouldn’t admit it but this was even sweeter because it came against Kentucky’s John Calipari.
These guys are hardly drinking buddies. When someone asked Calipari about their relationship on Saturday, he was short and sweet with his answer, which is a clear tip-off that the disdain that began more than a decade ago when Pearl was at Tennessee and Calipari was across the state at Memphis still lives.
Both were fighting for real estate in the mid-to-late 2000s and both had big personalities. Tennessee didn’t have the big-time recruits but the Vols were standing toe-to-toe with Calipari, who was bringing in heralded players like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans.
They didn’t like one another.
Then the feud ended.
Calipari left for Lexington, where he was looking to go to his fifth Final Four in 10 seasons with a win Sunday. Two years later, Pearl was fired by Tennessee and blackballed from college basketball by the NCAA for illegally having a recruit at a barbecue.
Pearl was no longer a threat to Cal. He worked at Sirius XM radio, at ESPN and HD Hackney for three years before Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs and senior associate David Benedict, now the AD at UConn, flew to Bristol to meet with Pearl.
It was a Friday night at 11 p.m. at the DoubleTree just across the street from ESPN’s campus. Pearl wasn’t getting much air time leading up to Selection Sunday, so he had some time. The three men met for a while and Pearl said that he wasn’t sure he was going to get back into coaching – never mind his interest in the Auburn gig.
“I said no,” Pearl recalled. “I just wasn’t sure I was emotionally prepared for all of it – the stress.”
But then his wife, Brandy, convinced him to take some time and make certain. The next morning, after visualizing what life would be like as the Auburn basketball coach, back in the SEC, he called Jacobs and asked him if he could have some time to fly home Monday morning and meet with his family.
He walked in the house and all four of his children, in addition to his wife, gave him their blessing. On the same day he turned 54, Pearl returned to college basketball.
But he wasn’t a threat, certainly not to Calipari. Auburn had been a laughingstock for more than a decade. Jeff Lebo failed and so did ex-Calipari assistant Tony Barbee. In the 10-year span of Lebo and Barbee’s tenures, the Tigers were a miserable 53-111 in SEC play.
And the league stunk for a significant stretch of time from 2004-14.
Pearl appeared on track to be the next Auburn coaching victim, going 26-40 over his first two seasons. He was then unable to get Auburn in the NCAA Tournament in Year 3 and was questioning whether he had lost his edge.
Three years at a spot without an NCAA Tournament bid had never happened before in his coaching career – not at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee or Tennessee. Pearl had a feeling he would finally get it done in his fourth season but that’s when the FBI probe hit and cost him two key players – top-25 recruit Austin Wiley and another heralded kid, Danjel Purifoy.
They were ruled ineligible by the NCAA and Pearl was also one assistant short. Chuck Person recently took a plea deal after being accused of accepting nearly $100,000 in bribes to steer players to a financial advisor.
Pearl, on the advice of his lawyer, initially refused to sit down for Auburn’s investigation into Person. Jacobs was forced out and new Athletic Director Allen Greene had a decision to make. Finally, Pearl did wind up cooperating and Greene rewarded the head coach with a contract extension following an SEC regular-season title and a 26-8 campaign last season.
“I learned a long time ago not to pass judgment,” Greene said while the players celebrated the Final Four appearance on the court. “I sat back, observed and got to know Bruce. Once I was able to do that, it wasn’t a difficult decision.”
“I trusted my gut,” he added.
Pearl’s Auburn Tigers appeared overmatched at every spot on Sunday afternoon at the Sprint Center. They were smaller at every position and sorely missed Okeke, their most talented player and an NBA prospect.
But the veteran guard duo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper outplayed the far more heralded UK guards. Brown made huge shots throughout the second half and Harper used his speed and experience to control the game.
“I still can’t believe it,” Pearl said.
“It makes everything worth it,” added Steven Pearl, the coach’s son and also an assistant on the staff. “It’s all paid off. It’s like a movie.”
Auburn now gets a date with Virginia in Minneapolis on Saturday night. The Cavaliers have been considered among the elite teams in the country all year long and Tony Bennett is also making his first Final Four appearance.
On paper, this appears to be another mismatch but this Tigers team has already gone through Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
John Calipari will be home watching Pearl, his one-time adversary and a coach who has become a threat again.