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Auburn’s Bruce Pearl embodies good and evil of college basketball

Updated April 4, 2019 - 8:31 pm

MINNEAPOLIS

The guy you would want to have a beer with can’t be trusted as far as you could throw his frosted mug.

I don’t know if Bruce Pearl is the riddle or the mystery or the enigma. He might be all three. He is everything good and bad about college basketball, as charming as he is conniving, as likable as he is shady.

He is the one you want as a friend, but when it comes time to face the music for improper actions, has suddenly disappeared.

Pearl also has coached Auburn to its first Final Four, at which the Tigers play Virginia in one national semifinal Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium, followed by Michigan State against Texas Tech. The winners meet for the national championship Monday.

How ironic for the NCAA, for the game, for all the scandal that has been unearthed around it, should it be the 59-year-old Pearl climbing a ladder and snipping away a final piece of net.

Or maybe not.

Things sure seem like they always have.

College basketball wasn’t brought to its knees after an FBI corruption investigation in 2018. The game didn’t die. The hammer has never dropped on blue blood programs and elite coaches with the sort of force most imagined. Not yet, anyway.

A man such as Pearl, slapped with a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA about an impermissible visit from a prospective recruit while at Tennessee, can sit at a Final Four news conference and pretty much deflect any blame while almost making you believe in his innocence.

The same man who once secretly taped a phone conversation with a recruit to try to bust a rival school, who had two of his assistant coaches at Auburn linked to the FBI probe, including one who was arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy. And who also had two Tigers players caught up in violations and summarily suspended.

“First of all, as you go through the process, it’s difficult,” Pearl said Thursday. “But I knew what I knew, and I knew what I didn’t know. Therefore, I was comfortable that if we stayed the course, that we were going to be fine. That doesn’t make what happened right, and certainly there have been severe penalties.

“Our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like that, and when we don’t do our job, there are consequences. But I didn’t think it was going to disrupt our program, because I knew what I knew and I knew what I didn’t know.”

I know this: That doesn’t, or shouldn’t, fly.

It’s worse if he didn’t know that former Auburn associate head coach Chuck Person was accepting almost six figures in bribes to steer players to specific financial advisers when they reached the NBA.

It’s worse if Pearl didn’t vet assistant Ira Bowman (now suspended indefinitely) enough to know he might eventually be named in federal court to have allegedly participated in a bribery scheme while at Penn.

Not knowing is a tired excuse. It’s worse than having knowledge about such transgressions, because if you’re so in the dark about these things, what kind of (renegade) program are you ultimately overseeing?

But he wins, and quotes Bible verses when talking basketball, and lures you in with his charisma, and has a terrific sense of humor, and paints his chest while sitting among students at women’s basketball games, and wins.

Root for Auburn?

The weird part: We should want Auburn to cut down the nets Monday. We should cheer for the highest remaining seed making its maiden voyage to the season’s final weekend, a side that lost star player Chuma Okeke to a torn ACL in the Sweet 16, an underdog that slayed mighty dragons Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky along its bracket journey.

We should admire Pearl’s leadership, a coach whose players were among the first to offer aid after a tornado strike in March that hit nine miles southeast of Auburn’s campus and killed 23 people, delivering water and diapers and hugs and prayers and words of encouragement.

Auburn and its coach should be the feel-good story of this Final Four.

War Eagle should be a rallying cry for those who desire an unconventional ending.

But then you remember the story has two sides, the coach has two faces, the sweet aroma has a bit of stench to it.

It would be really cool to have Bruce Pearl as a friend.

I just wouldn’t want him watching my back, is all.

I knew what I knew, and I knew what I didn’t know.

Insert rolling eyes emoji here.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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