An NCAA Final Four takes shape this spring weekend and one of the coaches with a shot is Bruce Pearl who headed up UWM's men's hoops program for a brief but furious stretch in the early 2000's, culminating with a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2005.
You DO remember UWM has a men's basketball program, don't you?
It started fading from memory sometime after Pearl's replacement, Rob Jeter, left under less than pleasant circumstances three years ago. Seems most fans, many sponsors, more than a few alum and an entire student body numbering over 20,000 at last count misplaced the sport, too. Why Panther basketball is in the local sports crapper is not the subject here today, but its decline since Pearl left, and his NCAA ascension (despite his own efforts to the contrary) can't be overlooked as we discuss how this flawed man with a consistently casual respect for recruiting and rules has a place in an NCAA that bills itself as the epitome of all that's right with modern student athletic competition.
Pearl and Kentucky's John Calipari are birds of a feather–admittedly good coaches who seem to have issues with rules. Though Calipari advoids conviction, Final Four appearances at two past stops had to be vacated.
Pearl's story is a little more, ahem, complicated. UWM gave him a job when no one else would after Pearl made claims about another school's recruiting techniques, a move Dick Vitale famously deemed “career suicide” for an apiring coach. The pariah redeemed himself on Milwaukee's east side and parlayed that success into a job at Tennesee where, predictably enough, another recruiting situation cost him his post. After a few years in NCAA exile, Pearl is back at Auburn but those years away don't mean memories get erased, especially when the snail trail seems to have followed him south. “A Coach WIth Plenty of Flair, Ability and Baggage” is how the New York Times graciously describes Pearl. Very Times-ian, indeed.
Marquette alum and USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour is less nuanced and more direct, saying he “symbolizes the rot in college athletics” and that “there is no jam too big for him to escape, no sin too grave for him to be forgiven…somehow, he's managed to turn sleeze into an attribute.” Armour points out how Auburn's brass stand behind Pearl even as two of his assistants got canned for ethics slips.
Those of you shaking your outraged fists at the heavens wondering where justice is, don't look to find it in a possible Auburn defeat and a lost shot at the Final Four this weekend because even if that happens, it seems even greener pastures await Pearl. He could trod the same sacred court space as the legendary John Wooden at Pauley Pavilion, according to some web scribes.
All because he wins.
Victory is the ultimate marketing tool, the instant fixer for any ailing program/franchise/club/endeavor. It also bolsters the bank accounts of players who can enhance its chances of happening even if it has yet to consistently occur on their watch (see “Harper, Bryce” and “Trout, Mike). No one wants a boblehead of your first baseman upon admission Sunday if the team around him sucks canal water. And, any coach who can take a faltering/obscure D-One football or basketball program to the game's highest reaches is going to merit a sniff, no matter how strong the odor of past decay.
A bartender buddy of mine had the best take on Pearl when we met up as March Madness was closing out its first weekend. He recalled his time at UWM, one that happened during the Pearl era. Pearl, he said, would knock on dorm doors the day of games, asking kids if they were comign to that night's game. He recalled fondly the atmosphere at the Arena for conference games, of an era that came and went oh so fast and now so far down one wonders what it'll take to give it a heartbeat again, yet alone past vitality. Pearl, he said, is a good coach who needs to get to a program where he doesn't have to be bothered with that messy business of recruiting–kind of like where Calipari is now. Get to a school, he said, where the kids come to you–a destination as opposed to a place they need talking into because that, he pointed out, is where Pearl meets trouble.
Maybe that's the best that can be said of an NCAA which draws all manner of comers to it's coaching ranks. They keep getting jobs because they keep winning despite themselves in an Association that refuses say no more. It's a place where the Caliparis and Pearls of the world get third, fourth and fifth chances while the Association runs public service announcements about ethics, opportunity, fair play and the value of education. It makes bank as we fill out our brackets, never questioning how the sausage is being made, or at who's expense.
Or where that rotting smell is coming from.