Free of NCAA doubt, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is ready to throw some haymakers – AL.com

Free of NCAA doubt, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is ready to throw some haymakers – AL.com
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Auburn beat the NCAA rap, Bruce Pearl is a stronger force than ever in college basketball and now his brash and electrifying team can focus on making a run at another Final Four.

Good day to be an Auburn Tiger, in other words.

Good night, finally, to the four-plus years of NCAA purgatory that haunted Auburn basketball ever since it was implicated in an investigation by the FBI into the fraud and filth of college hoops. Former Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person, an Auburn basketball legend, was arrested way back on September 27, 2017, for taking bribes from a sleazy financial advisor who was actually working for the feds. An NCAA investigation followed, and on Friday — after all the waiting and waiting and waiting, and gnashing of the teeth, and emergency committees and commissions on NCAA reform, and a pandemic, and a complete overhaul of how the general public views the role of the NCAA, and a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey publicly questioning the value of the NCAA, and, oh yeah, new NCAA rules allowing college athletes to benefit financially from their name, image and likeness — the penalties against Auburn basketball, at long last, were handed down.

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And there was really nothing to them. Auburn is going to be fine, and probably better than ever before. After four years of questions and an ever-present cloud of doubt, Pearl was hit with only a two-game suspension. Maybe he’ll watch Saturday’s game in Atlanta from the student section with his shirt off.

Pearl danced shirtless with Cam Newton during Auburn football’s home game against Georgia this season, and now the significance of that bizarre scene for the national TV cameras is finally coming into focus. Pearl and Newton both stared down the barrel of the NCAA and dodged bullets.

Newton famously turned in one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history while under investigation by the NCAA. Pearl’s 2019 Tigers won the SEC Tournament and had one of the most exciting runs to the Final Four the NCAA Tournament has ever seen despite the NCAA notifying Auburn before the season that Auburn basketball was under investigation.

Pearl put out a statement after the NCAA’s infraction arm released its findings and penalties against his program. It felt like a victory speech.

“I’m appreciative of Auburn University, our leadership, the AU family and our current and former student-athletes as we navigated through the challenges of the last four years,” Pearl said. “We respect the NCAA peer evaluation process and appreciate the panel recognized we took meaningful and contemporaneous penalties.

“It is time to put this behind us. As part of our penalty, I will begin my two-game suspension tomorrow against Nebraska.”

There are other penalties. Auburn basketball is on probation until 2025, and the program must forfeit two scholarships. The fear was the NCAA’s punishment would be much worse, but now we’re left to wonder why it all took so long if Auburn was only getting a slap on the wrist. Auburn’s decision to self-impose a postseason ban last season now looks brilliant. After losing so much from 2019, the young Tigers weren’t making the NCAA Tournament during a pandemic anyway.

Pearl and Co. will never know what it was like to be quarantined in Indianapolis. Bummer.

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The saga is mostly over for Auburn, but let’s not forget the lives that were changed along the way. Person, whose life was ruined by the arrest, is pretty much finished in college basketball. He received a 10-year show-cause penalty, meaning he can’t be involved in collegiate athletics for a decade.

Another former Auburn assistant, Harris Adler, was banned for a year. Adler resigned in May of 2018, so it would seem like Auburn knew what was coming for years and took preemptive steps to mitigate the damage.

For being the head coach who, according to the NCAA’s news release, “failed to adequately monitor the associate head coach and did not promote an atmosphere of compliance,” Pearl is now suspended for two games beginning with Saturday’s tilt against Nebraska. In a Zoom call on Friday, a representative for the NCAA’s committee on infractions panel said that Pearl’s previous three-year show cause was taken into consideration in this latest case. Vincent Nicastro, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer for the Big East Conference and chief hearing officer for the panel, didn’t elaborate, though, so we’re left to wonder how.

Every case is different, Nicastro said, so don’t judge the NCAA’s penalties against Auburn with other previous or future cases. There will be a sentiment nationally that Auburn, which rightly should be criticized for its lack of transparency, got off easy in the end, but that’s not completely accurate. A cloud of lingering dread has been hovering over Auburn since 2017, and suffering from the NCAA’s grinding incompetence is perhaps penalty enough.

Auburn, after everything, remains a rising power in college basketball, and Pearl, by the looks of him with his shirt off, is ready to throw some haymakers.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr. His new book, “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’,” is available wherever books are sold.