Bruce Pearl sat in a hotel room with Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs and let the words and emotions spill out.
Banished from coaching for three years by the NCAA, Pearl spoke well into the night on that Friday in March about the events that ended his successful run at Tennessee. It was enough to convince Jacobs that the guy at the top of his wish list didn’t have questionable character, and he wound up hiring Pearl to lead another Southeastern Conference basketball program that has struggled for a decade.
“I went right at him with the questions of lying to the NCAA,” Jacobs said. “He sat there and looked at me and with tears in his eyes and expressed his remorse for doing it and told me the entire story. Took probably 20-25 minutes. When he was through telling me the story and talking about the pain and the hurt that he and his family had gone through, I knew that he was remorseful and he had repented and I knew that it wasn’t a character flaw. He had made a mistake.”
Pearl is one of several high-profile college coaches this season getting second chances — or just new situations — after past brushes with the NCAA. Houston hired former Oklahoma and Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson. Frank Haith left Missouri for Tulsa.
The three coaches have 1,167 wins among them — and baggage many can’t forget.
Pearl and Sampson both spent several years out of college coaching while under show-cause orders. Pearl worked in business and TV after getting fired from Tennessee in 2011 for lying to investigators about violations involving a cookout at his home for junior prospects and their families.
Sampson had worked the past six years as an NBA assistant after receiving a five-year show cause penalty for NCAA violations regarding impermissible calls to recruits at both Oklahoma and Indiana. Haith’s own NCAA run-in didn’t hinder his ability to swap jobs. The NCAA suspended him for the first five games last season for inadequately monitoring his former assistants’ interactions with disgraced Miami booster Nevin Shapiro and then trying to cover up a five-figure payment to keep potential violations hidden.
Pearl, who was barred from recruiting until August, was working as an analyst for ESPN when Jacobs came calling.
He said it wasn’t a sure thing that he’d return to the bench.
“I’m embarrassed and I’m sick about the way it ended at Tennessee, but this is not about redemption,” Pearl said. “I’ve proven I can coach. I’ve proven that I can win. I’ve proven that we can do a lot of good things.”
Pearl has led his teams to NCAA tournament berths in all but two of his 19 seasons as a head coach, with 10 Sweet Sixteen appearances. Auburn hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2003 and has been near the bottom of the SEC in attendance.
The Tigers, who open the season Friday night against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, have sold out their season tickets for the first time since 1999-2000.
“He’s created a tidal wave of excitement not only for the basketball program but for the entire athletics department,” Jacobs said.
Sampson has guided teams to 13 NCAA tournament trips and a 2002 Final Four appearance with Oklahoma. Now 59, Sampson resigned from Indiana late in the 2008 season. He said “a lot of other schools” had contacted him about their coaching jobs the past couple of years as he was working in the NBA as an assistant with Milwaukee and then Houston.
“My goal was to become a head coach in the NBA so I didn’t really respond to any of that,” he said.
His new job gave him a chance to work with his son, Kellen, at a program that has made 19 NCAA tournaments but only one since 1992.
“We all have scars,” Sampson said. “Some people have scars you don’t know about. Some people’s are more publicized, but we all have scars. Everybody. We all make mistakes. Everybody.
“Some people tend to like pounce on other people’s mistakes without admitting their mistakes, but that’s the way life goes. For me, this opportunity is a win-win for me. No. 1, how many times do you get to become a head coach in college and you get to work with your son?”
Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades said Sampson has generated considerable excitement for the program. He said Sampson’s handling of the NCAA questions in his initial news conference helped soothe any concerns fans might have had.
“Just from our fan base, from our season ticket holders, the people on campus, there has not been one ounce of reservation,” Rhoades said.
As for Haith, he takes over a Tulsa program that’s switching from Conference USA to a much stronger basketball league, the American Athletic Conference. He led Miami and Missouri to eight postseason trips over 10 years.
His new athletic director, Derrick Gragg, is a former compliance director at Missouri (in the 1990s), Arkansas and Michigan. He said Haith’s situation at Miami “was carefully vetted through credible entities,” including current and former NCAA investigators and Missouri compliance officials.
Gragg also said in his experience coaches learn from such missteps.
“I think that people have been through situations like this are a lot more cautious and a lot more careful and scrutinize their staffs and themselves in ways that maybe some people who haven’t been through these situations before would,” he said. “I think everyone learns from situations like this.”
All three schools are depending on that.
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