If current Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl winds up being the choice of IU Athletics Director Rick Greenspan to replace Mike Davis, what a long, strange trip it will have been for the one-time Iowa Hawkeye assistant coach back to the Big Ten.
Pearl, who has a 336-88 record in 14 years as a head coach, got his start in the profession under former Iowa Coach Dr. Tom Davis. A graduate of Boston College, Pearl first worked as an undergraduate assistant for Davis at Boston College, and then continued to work with Davis at both Stanford and then eventually at Iowa. As an assistant coach at Iowa from 1987-92, Pearl helped the Hawkeyes to a 129-63 record and five NCAA tourney invitations, including a 30-5 mark in 1987 when Iowa advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to UNLV.
Pearl's Iowa stay, though, is best remembered for a recruiting scandal of sorts that involved Chicago Simeon recruit Deon Thomas. Both Iowa and Illinois were recruiting the Chicago Public League standout, and Pearl claimed that Thomas said Illinois was offering him $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to sign with the Illini. Pearl would later record a phone conversation with Thomas in which he echoed those same statements. Iowa eventually turned over those tapes to the NCAA, prompting an investigation into the Illini program and then Illini assistant coach Jimmy Collins. While Illinois was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Thomas matter, the probe did uncover some other minor infractions which landed the Illini on probation in the 1990s.
Soon afterwards Pearl disappeared from the Iowa bench and reappeared as the head coach Division II Southern Indiana. Pearl spent nine years in the Hoosier state and compiled a 231-46 record at USI, including a Division II national championship in 1995 and a runner-up finish in 1994. From there he resurfaced at the Division I level, spending four years at UW-Milwaukee. He guides the Horizon League school to an 86-38 mark during those four seasons, including two NCAA tourney invitations and a Sweet 16 appearance last spring.
That success earned him his current opportunity at Tennessee, and he's quickly turned the Volunteers into a national force. Just a year removed from a 14-17 campaign that resulted in the firing of Coach Buzz Peterson, Pearl has guided Tennessee to a 19-4 mark, a 10-2 record in the SEC and a top-10 ranking nationally.
While Tennessee is positioned to make some noise in the postseason, the men's basketball program is always going to play second fiddle to the football program. With the long-standing success of UT women's coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols, you could make a case that the men's basketball team is actually the third most popular team on the Knoxville campus. That fact might make him interested in looking into what IU might have to offer.
Pearl is in the first year of a five-year contract that guarantees him $800,000 annually. Additional bonuses and camp moneys can bring the annual package to the $1 million mark.
What Makes Him a Viable Candidate: While he was born in Boston, much of Pearl's coaching background has been in the Midwest. Before taking the UT job last spring, he had spent the previous 19 years coaching in either Iowa, Indiana or Wisconsin, so he's well connected in the area. Midwestern ties will likely be important to Greenspan, as will Pearl's affable personality that will make him a hit around the state at various outings. Pearl is also considered a "basketball junkie" by those who know him best, a tireless worker who has long been considered an outstanding and relentless recruiter. He's also smart enough to know that while he can have success at Tennessee, a program like Indiana offers him a better opportunity to excel year-in and year-out on a national level with its storied tradition and the abundance of elite players within the state's boundaries.
What Makes Him a Longshot: Tennessee has been longing for a coach that could come in and produce a winner, and now that it's found one it isn't going to let him go without a fight. Tennessee also has deep pockets so if it comes down to dollars, then Tennessee can likely out-spend Indiana to keep him. He's also just one year into his contract which might make him hesitant to walk away. Even though the Deon Thomas episode was long ago, it hasn't been forgotten by many and that could make Greenspan think twice about bringing Pearl to Bloomington.
HoosierNation.com's Take: Pearl is an intriguing possibility. His success is impressive – only North Carolina's Roy Williams reached the 300-win mark quicker than Pearl (370 games for Williams, 382 for Pearl). He also took an underachieving Tennessee team and immediately transformed them into a top-10 team in his first season, something that many think is possible in Bloomington as well if the roster returns in tact. It will be interesting to see just how motivated Pearl is to return to the Big Ten in the wake of what happened 15-plus years ago when he was an assistant at Iowa. Many predicted that he had committed "coaching suicide" by taping the phone conversation with Deon Thomas and turning it over to the NCAA in the early 1990s. If he's able to not only return to the Big Ten, but to do so as the head coach at the most tradition-laden program in the conference's history, it would be a crowning achievement for a coach that was written off as dead 15 years ago.
COACHING SEARCH: Is Pearl Part of the Plan?
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