- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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He did the right thing, that was Bruce Pearl's mantra. When his peers labeled him a rat and a snitch and ostracized him within his profession for nearly 15 years because he turned in Illinois, Pearl held fast to his strongest defense -- that he did the right thing.
And so to hear a teary-eyed Pearl admit that he did the wrong thing, that he misled NCAA investigators, it was both deliciously ironic and depressingly eye-opening.
This is what we've come to, apparently. Even the one who suffered for his principles has been sucked into the vortex of anything for survival.
I shouldn't be surprised.
From what I heard from 20 head coaches this summer, no program is clean. It's just a matter of what you consider dirty. Rules are broken every day by every coach. Some do it intentionally and deliberately, others tripped up by the convoluted nature of the rulebook.
But no one is perfect.
I'm not naive enough to consider Bruce Pearl or any other coach a paragon of virtue, but I have to admit this one surprised me.
Twenty years ago, Pearl was an assistant at Iowa when the Hawkeyes and Illinois were recruiting top high school prospect Deon Thomas. Pearl recorded Thomas, who by then had committed to Illinois, admitting that he had received a car from an Illinois assistant and turned the tape over to the NCAA.
Though the NCAA never was able to back up Pearl’s claim, the subsequent investigation revealed other violations and Illinois was handed a one-year postseason ban.
Pearl, in the meantime, learned that college coaches can be as strict as the Amish when it comes to shunning.
It took Pearl three years to get a job, and even then it was at Division II Southern Indiana. He took the dormant program to two national title games, and by 1995 he won the whole thing. That’s about the time some bigger school usually swoops in to steal away the savvy coach, but not so for Pearl.
He was still the coach with cooties. No one would hire him, not as a head coach, not as an assistant.
In hoops, no good deed goes unpunished.
Finally, after nine years at Southern Indiana and a 231-46 record, he got a Division I offer -– from mid-major Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Three successful seasons later, Tennessee lifted the de facto ban and hired Pearl .
It took him 14 years of hard labor to get back in and only six to learn how to play the game.
Once an example of seemingly moral righteousness, Pearl now merely jumps on the laundry heap of coaches whose reputations have been muddied. The Tennessee violations revolve around excessive phone calls to recruits and use of unauthorized phones, the same mistakes that cost Kelvin Sampson his job and reputation.
Pearl’s salary has been slashed by $1.5 million and he cannot recruit on the road for a year, serious punishments that imply the violations were plentiful and that Pearl, rather than just being a victim of a staff gone amok, was complicit in the wrongdoing.
But it’s more than the phone calls; it’s the apparent misinformation Pearl supplied to the NCAA that is so galling.
The NCAA is like a parent. It gets mad at the misdeed, but downright irate at the lying to cover up the misdeed. In an NCAA investigation, a coach is supposed to do one thing -– fall on his sword and come clean.
And yet Pearl, a man who once was disgusted enough with purported wrongdoing in his profession that he made like a private investigator, not only did the wrong, he tried to cover his tracks.
If that’s not a testimony to the state of the game, I’m not sure what is.
"It’s serious what we did,’’ Pearl said at Friday's news conference. “It’s worse how we handled it.’’
Just as he did 20 years ago, Bruce Pearl knew what was right.
He just chose to do wrong.