There are plenty of people in college basketball amazed at Bruce Pearl's situation right now. Once thought to be in danger of losing his job, Auburn's coach has instead twisted his fate.
It certainly looked like Pearl's job was in jeopardy in the last few months, including when it was reported that Pearl was refusing to take part in Auburn's own internal inquiry after an FBI probe into corruption implicated one of his assistants. However, Pearl told CBS Sports he is now cooperating with the schools investigation. And with a 10-1 record, Pearl has the team in a better place than most would have thought possible a few weeks ago.
How did it happen? Let's roll back a bit. Because if you'd like an inside look as to how speculation bubbled behind the scenes in college hoops, this is the broad view.
On Oct. 2, Louisville began the formal process of divorcing itself from Hall of Famer Rick Pitino. Two weeks later, he was officially fired. And while the smoldering remains of Pitino's legacy emanated out of his former home city, college basketball coaches, media, officials -- so many within the sport -- wondered who was going to be the next to go.
This FBI's unprecedented case that pulled the curtain back on some of college basketball's corrupt recruiting habits wasn't going to merely claim just one head coach's job, was it? So who was next?
The name that was most loosely, presumptively tossed around was Pearl's. It was Auburn legend Chuck Person, who worked under Pearl as an assistant, that faced particularly intense charges on behalf of the federal government. Person's alleged to have schemed with middle men for personal profit while recruiting players to Auburn for the future gain of financial advisers. Ugly. Plus Pearl has the scarlet letter, a previous show-cause penalty from the NCAA to his name, dating back to his time at Tennessee when he lied to NCAA investigators about the details of a cookout he had at his house that also served as backdrop for an illegal recruiting soirée.
That alone could have been enough to get Pearl pink-slipped before the season started. He made for an easy candidate but was absolutely insistent he was not privy to or aware of anything Person had done. Auburn's quietly leadership stood by him. Then, before the Tigers' season began, the team's roster fell apart. On Nov. 2, the program disclosed that sophomores Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley -- two of the team's top four scorers last season -- would be indefinitely suspended as their eligibility was reviewed by the school. The next day, Auburn announced that Jay Jacobs, its athletic director and the man who hired Pearl, would soon be retiring.
There's still more.
In mid-November, a report claimed that Pearl was not cooperating with Auburn's investigation. Pearl told CBS Sports on Wednesday that the reporting, to an extent, lacked clarity and accuracy.
"Some of what we were going through during our investigation, that should have remained private," Pearl said. "Some of what was reported -- some of it was incorrect. Hey, we made some mistakes and we're trying to get our program in good standing. We are cooperating."
By "we" Pearl means he and his legal representation have made themselves of service to Auburn's investigation. That could be what's allowed him to keep his job. That and the fact that Auburn's off to its best start in 18 years and riding its longest winning streak (eight games) since the 2002-03 season.
Here we are, the week of Christmas. Wiley and Purifoy are still in eligibility limbo, Jacobs is preparing to transition to retirement, and not only is Pearl still on the job but he's making an early case for Coach of the Year consideration.
Shorthanded, overlooked Auburn is 10-1 after its road victory Tuesday night against Murray State. It's no small deal; Murray State's got a good shot to win the OVC and make the NCAA Tournament come March. Auburn was the first SEC program to play at Murray State in two decades. Pearl scheduled the game originally to boost his team's non-conference reputation. It will wind up paying off big-time come March.
"I can't get household names to go to Auburn," he said.
Auburn won the game despite having six scholarship players available in the final minutes. Forty percent of Pearl's victories this season have come on road and neutral courts. Auburn's a top-40 team at KenPom.com and is in position to compete in an improved, deep SEC. Incredibly, Pearl has only helped in job security despite lacking two critical players and being handcuffed by injuries to others. Undefeated Arizona State is the most surprising team this season, but Auburn's not far behind.
How's he done it? From an X's-and-O's perspective, Pearl's never had this many players return from the year before since he got to Auburn in 2014.
"Every year's been a rebuild," Pearl told CBS Sports on Wednesday. "Last year I had four freshmen starters that led the team in scoring, including Purifoy and Wiley, but now we have five kids back that played last year, and so the things that ailed us -- whether it be our drop-back defense, our rebounding, our free-throw shooting -- they were areas we really targeted in the offseason. We said, 'Look, if we can keep doing what we're doing offensively and then tighten up these areas, think about how anymore games we're going to win."
The most unlikely bump in production has come with Auburn's offensive rebounding. Last season the team ranked 135th in crashing the offensive glass. This season they're No. 8, according to KenPom.com. And this is with 6-foot-3 DeSean Murray playing power forward. Pearl calls Murray the best 6-3 power forward in the country, and he's probably right. This whole situation is unparalled, but it's working. Auburn has been forced to play undersized and it's not yet stopped Pearl from having his best start personally since 2007-08, when Tennessee famously got to No. 1 in the polls after beating No. 1 Memphis. The Vols wound up with a No. 2 seed that season.
One of the things Bruce's son Steven reminded him of earlier this season was about those really good Tennessee teams. They weren't just athletic, but they were tough -- even when occasionally undersized.
"A year ago we weren't as disciplined offensively," Pearl said. "That's number one. The second, regarding the personnel, the four newcomers (Chuma Okeke, Davion Mitchell, Malik Dunbar and Murray) are all physical players."
Purifoy and Wiley have been able to practice, and that's been huge, too. The team's stayed sharp by having two guys on the B team who would normally be starting.
"From their standpoint, they're staying right and they're staying ready and making progress academically," Pearl said of Wiley and Purifoy's dilemma. "At this point they've missed over a third of the season. They're both Alabama kids that came to Auburn to turn things around. Austin's a legacy, both parents played here. Danjel was one of those Alabama kids who loved Auburn. You know what that's like in the state, it's rare. They're heartbroken. It's so difficult for them to keep their heads up, and of course, people are going to judge them and they've got a certain level of accountability, and that's for sure. I hope we can get them back. They're doing everything they can to get themselves into position to get them back."
As of now, both are still going through what Pearl described as the question-and-answer phase. There is no timeline for when or if either will return to the floor this season. Their cases could still determine Pearl's fate, too.
"I've always maintained a level of optimism and trust in the process," Pearl added. "I truly look at them as victims."
For all of his skeptics and critics, the reality is this: Bruce Pearl has coached Auburn to the point where it's expected to beat UConn, a program that's won more national championships than any program in the past 25 years. That's who's next. The Huskies face the Tigers on Saturday. Auburn won in OT at UConn last year. Now Tiger fans are expecting a winning streak. That's a commentary on why Pearl was brought to Auburn in the first place. It's messy, it's controversial, but Auburn is relevant and charging into 2018 with optimism not even Pearl could have conjured back in the fall.
"They're not the same UConn team of the past but they've got a great coach and got a couple of great special player -- and size," Pearl said. "UConn's a scary team because they do have some tremendous pieces. They were better with Alterique Gilbert on the floor because he was a great extension of coach (Kevin) Ollie. Right now they're in the process of reinventing themselves. But they've got the pieces, there's no question. What's going to be different about them vs. every team in the SEC is they've got real size, real personnel, and for us there's no margin for error."
Pearl's been coaching with essentially no margin for error every day since the FBI story broke. Somehow, without a senior on the roster and with investigators hovering over, he's turned this into one of the best coaching productions of his career.
"We're 10-1," Pearl said. "When your team's playing hard and playing together, every coach's job security is better. I love Auburn and I want to finish my career here, but I'm not interested in finishing it this year."
Wiley and Purifoy sit in purgatory. Pearl is on the precipice of putting Auburn back into the Top 25. Whatever the FBI's investigation set out on doing, it hasn't stopped one of the game's most exuberant coaches from pulling off the improbable. Against the odds, here goes Pearl again, and he will not go quietly.