Pearl served his time in Div. II before thriving in Div. I again
He rode the bus for nine years.
Two hundred sixty miles to Rensselaer, Ind. Three hundred miles to Quincy, Ill. Three hundred eighty-five miles to Kenosha, Wis.
And that was one way. The trips home were just as long when the games were over. Cornfields, flat land and gray winter skies, forever.
This was Bruce Pearl's purgatory: nearly a decade coaching at the University of Southern Indiana, a Division II outfit in Evansville. A guy who had been a rising star in his 20s -- named by Basketball Weekly as one of the top assistant coaches in college basketball -- had taken a series of endless bus rides into semi-obscurity.
The basketball was good, by Division II standards. The life wasn't glamorous, by Division I standards.
It contained none of the travel perks associated with the Big East, Pac-10 and Big Ten, where Pearl had been an assistant coach under Tom Davis for 10 years. And it is light years from the life Pearl enjoys now, as the millionaire head coach who will lead top-10 Tennessee into the NCAA tournament.
"I loved the bus," Pearl says of his Southern Indiana days. "I could recruit out of my car. I didn't need a private plane. This may be a surprise to some people who think I'm full of it, but I love coaching, and you could really coach there.
"But after a while I started to think, 'Gosh, I'm settling.' There were a few small gyms and a few bus trips where I said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"
As the years went by and the bus rides rolled on, the question was whether he'd ever find the route out.
Basketball's bizarre outlaw street code left Bruce Pearl on the game's second tier for an excessive length of time. But Pearl, branded an NCAA snitch after turning in Illinois for alleged recruiting violations in 1989, made the best of it. Made himself a good head coach. Made himself into the program-builder he is today.
"It was a tremendous training ground," Pearl says.
None other than Bo Ryan, who spent much of his career coaching on the lower levels of the college game, counseled Pearl to take the job at USI.
"He told me, 'You've got to go coach and you've got to go learn. There are a lot of great coaches at that level that really challenge you,'" Pearl recalls. "I found that to be true."
Pearl came to respect the competition in Division II, especially in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. For nine straight years, a GLVC team played in the national championship game. The impressive thing was how quickly Pearl got Southern Indiana to the top of that conference, and to the top of the country.
The Screamin' Eagles were the Division II national runners-up his second season in Evansville, and the next year they won the championship. Everyone knew Pearl could coach before he went to USI, and then he proved it -- but the only Division I offer that came after that championship season was from Middle Tennessee State.
I think he'd been blackballed a little bit. I think it had a lot to do with the stigma from the Illinois situation. But he was not going to let that keep him down.
It would be seven more years before Pearl landed his Division I job, succeeding Ryan at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He'd seen other Big Ten assistants get big-time first jobs: Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Tom Crean at Marquette. Even after nine years of proving himself, Pearl was still well down the food chain.
"I think he'd been blackballed a little bit," says Pearl's former assistant, Rick Herdes, now the head coach at Southern Indiana. "I think it had a lot to do with the stigma from the Illinois situation. But he was not going to let that keep him down."
"The Illinois situation" was one of the more famous cases in NCAA history, leading to an incredibly obstinate resentment from Illini fans toward Pearl that lingers to this day. Put it this way: Twenty years from now you won't find many Illinois backers who still actively hate Eric Gordon, but there are plenty who still hold Pearl's actions in the late 1980s against him.
Locked in a bitter recruiting struggle with Illinois for Chicago McDonald's All-American Deon Thomas, Pearl -- then an assistant under Davis at Iowa -- began recording conversations with Thomas and taking notes on the alleged assertions of the player and his friends that the Illini were offering him cash and a car to sign with them. Thomas eventually signed with Illinois and became the school's all-time leading scorer but ultimately at great cost to everyone involved.
Pearl did not act as a lone vigilante; he ran everything by Davis and the Iowa athletic administration. Yet when the NCAA investigated and Illinois was charged with major violations, the backlash fell directly on Pearl. His name became anathema in the state of Illinois, where he was accused of unethical behavior.
"Within the profession I got great support," Pearl says. "Unbelievable support. But for [Illinois], the defense was to destroy the witness. The oldest tactic in the world."
On Nov. 7, 1990, the NCAA committee on infractions found Illinois guilty of major infractions. As a repeat violator from recent football infractions, it was hit with a one-year ban from postseason play, among other penalties. Some of the infractions related directly to information provided by Pearl, some did not. But the committee did not find the Illini guilty of the most serious charges levied by its enforcement staff via the information it received from Pearl.
"[The NCAA] wound up not having a finding," Pearl says. "But they didn't say [Illinois was] innocent."
In the minds of some, Bruce Pearl was no longer innocent, either. Illinois went down, but took a pound of its accuser's flesh with it. Evansville and Division II became the place to start anew.
When Southern Indiana officials went looking for a coach to revive a basketball program that had slipped behind some of its rivals, they wound up in Iowa City. Then-athletic director Don Bennett was part of the group that went to background itself on Bruce Pearl, and he had to ask the Illinois question.
"I sat across the desk [from then-Iowa AD Bob Bowlsby] and asked him direct questions about that," Bennett says. "He told me what happened. He told me Bruce did everything he was supposed to do."
I'd bring guys to the table, and he'd finish the deal. I've always told him he's got the ability to sell broomsticks at $100 apiece.
"The only concern was recruiting -- could I recruit?" Pearl says. "I would have to live to a higher standard. Having cooperated with the NCAA, there would be people out there saying, 'If I get a chance, I'm going to nail him.' I had to be above reproach."
That's the sad reality of college basketball: Being above reproach and being an effective recruiter often are seen as mutually exclusive things.
But it didn't take Pearl long to prove he could collect talent. In his first recruiting class, he went into Danville, Ill. -- 30 miles from the Illinois campus -- and signed a kid named Stan Gouard. Gouard went on to become the two-time Division II Player of the Year.
"Got him right out of Danville, Ill.," Pearl says. "Question asked, question answered."
It was hardly his only recruiting coup. Pearl was just cranking up his overpowering charisma.
He made the short drive from Evansville to Lyons, Ind., and locked up a point guard named Marc Hostetter, selling him on a vision that looked cloudy at first.
"He came in to USI at a time when they had not had the success they were looking for," Hostetter says. "But he's sitting in the living room with your parents and selling you on winning a national championship. I believed, even if there was no reason to believe."
The Screamin' Eagles got their national championship, and Hostetter became the school's all-time assists leader. Today, he's on the USI staff.
After his first season, Pearl grabbed up Indiana State transfer Chad Gilbert, winning him over with another charm-drenched recruiting pitch.
"He came to our house, and my dad cooked for him," Gilbert recalls. "He must have ate five pounds of crab legs. He wore 'em out. By the time the visit was over, my mom and sister wanted to play for him, too."
Says Herdes: "I'd bring guys to the table, and he'd finish the deal. I've always told him he's got the ability to sell broomsticks at $100 apiece."
But Pearl didn't just butter up his players until signing day. He ingratiated himself once they arrived on campus, too -- dropping by their dorm rooms unannounced to talk, even lifting weights with them. Players might have occasionally gotten mad at Pearl, but they could never stay mad.
"We used to call them 'million dollar meetings,'" Gilbert says. "You'd go in to talk to him and come out feeling like a million dollars. You might have gone in to complain about playing time, and you'd come out feeling so good that you forgot why you went in to begin with."
Armed with talent, the next thing Pearl had to do was to make Evansville care. The city gravitates toward the Division I in the region: Indiana University, hometown Evansville University of the Missouri Valley Conference, and even Indiana State up the road in Terre Haute.
Pearl was undaunted. He shook every available hand in Evansville and talked into every available microphone.
"He took the city by storm," Bennett says. "He spoke to every group that would have him. After a while, I had to hold back organizations and businesses that wanted him. They wanted him to speak almost every day."
Pearl's pitch was so successful -- and his on-court product was so entertaining -- that Southern Indiana became one of the national Division II attendance leaders on his watch. The Screamin' Eagles were anywhere from sixth to 13th in average attendance during his final seven seasons, and they have remained in the top 16 every season since he left.
Some people even credit Pearl with revitalizing the entire west side of Evansville, where they've named a street after him.
"You'd have to really search Evansville to find anyone who'd ever say anything bad about him," Bennett says.
But for the longest time, you couldn't find many people in Division I willing to hire him. And for a long time, that was OK.
While in Evansville, Bruce Pearl coached little league. Coached his four kids in soccer, softball, baseball and basketball.
Can you imagine a high-major coach doing that?
"I couldn't do it now," he says. "In D-II there was a little more balance in my life."
Life was comfortable. Evansville was a good town for raising kids. There was enough to do: Casino Aztar sat on the adjacent Ohio River, and there were some decent restaurants.
He had his own radio show, an entertaining endeavor that once featured a caller praising Pearl for playing an appealing "Christian" brand of basketball. Pearl responded that he appreciated the compliment, even though he was Jewish and had a Muslim player on the squad.
And, of course, he was winning like a madman. His worst record in nine seasons was 22-7 that first year, the only time his winning percentage was below .800. He loved the battles with rival Kentucky Wesleyan and other GLVC teams.
"I'm not built like you have to be built for this profession," Pearl says. "It is nomadic in nature.
"I stayed at Southern Indiana for a reason. I knew I was going to win 20 games a year. I started to settle a little bit. I stopped thinking like I told my kids to live, which is to always be the best you can be.
"But eventually I decided that I did not want to sit on my porch someday and say, 'I wonder if I could have been a head coach at that level?'"
The answer came in 2001, when Pearl got the job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He went 16-13 that first season, and then it was back to 20 wins a year. In his fourth year UW-M went 26-6 and crashed the Sweet 16.
Finally, Bruce Pearl was a red-hot name. The only thing that mattered was his won-lost record. And Tennessee noticed.
The results in Knoxville have been more of the same: 75 wins in three years; unprecedented enthusiasm for hoops at a football school; a second No. 2 NCAA tournament seed; and a chance to do something the Volunteeers have never done. Namely, make a Final Four.
Pearl's first game at Tennessee was an exhibition game against the first team he coached: Southern Indiana. The Screamin' Eagles gave the Vols a battle that day before succumbing.
As Thompson-Boling Arena security escorted Herdes back to his locker room, the losing coach told his dubious escorts: "Just give him time. I promise you, he'll take it to another level."
It took him too long to get his own shot at another level. But Bruce Pearl's purgatory helped make him the success he is today.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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NCAA Tournament 2008
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