Bruce Pearl

Bruce Allan Pearl (born March 18, 1960) is an American college basketball coach, and the head coach of the Auburn Tigers men’s basketball program. He previously served as the head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers men’s team, among others. He is a graduate of Boston College, where he obtained his first position as an assistant basketball coach. He was the first coach to lead the Volunteers to a national #1 ranking. Pearl also served as the head coach for the Maccabi USA basketball team in the 2009 World Maccabiah Games.

Early life and family

A native of Boston, Pearl attended Sharon High School in Sharon, Massachusetts and is a 1982 graduate of Boston College, where he served as the manager of the men’s basketball team. He is married to Brandy. He has two daughters, Jacqui and Leah and two sons, Steven, who was on the Tennessee basketball team for four years, and Michael.

Coaching career

Before coming to Tennessee, Pearl was the head coach at Milwaukee and, prior to that, at Southern Indiana, where he won a Division II national championship. He also served as an assistant coach at the University of Iowa under then-head coach Tom Davis.

Among his accolades, Pearl is the second-fastest NCAA coach to reach 300 victories, and needed only 382 games to reach this mark (Roy Williams, the current coach at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, needed 370 games at the University of Kansas to reach this milestone). It should be noted, however, that all of Williams’ victories came at the Division I level, whereas a portion of Pearl’s victories came in Division II, and contributed to his rise to the Division I ranks.

Against division rival Kentucky and in-state rival Vanderbilt, Pearl chose to wear a brightly colored orange jacket in honor of the late UT coach, Ray Mears. To show the importance of the game, Pearl wore the jacket during the 2009 SEC Men’s Tournament Final.

Pearl is president of the Jewish Coaches Association.

Pearl/Thomas incident

During the 1988–89 basketball season, Pearl, then an assistant coach at the University of Iowa, was at the center of a recruiting scandal involving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both Illinois and Iowa were recruiting Deon Thomas, a top high school player from Chicago. Pearl lost this recruiting battle when Thomas committed to Illinois. Thereafter, Pearl called the high school student and recorded a phone conversation with Thomas. During the conversation, Pearl asked Thomas if he had been offered an SUV and cash by Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins, and Thomas seemed to indicate that he had. Pearl then turned over copies of the tapes to the NCAA, accompanied by a memo describing the events. During the subsequent NCAA investigation, Thomas denied the allegations and said the story was false, that he was agreeing with Pearl only to try to get rid of him. Thomas later passed a polygraph test in which he denied Pearl’s accusation of Illinois offering cash and a car. The NCAA did not find Illinois guilty of any wrongdoing relating to Thomas’ recruitment, finding that the purported evidence provided was not “credible, persuasive and of a kind on which reasonably prudent persons rely in the conduct of serious affairs.” However, since the investigation uncovered other violations, including Illinois’ third major violation in six years, the NCAA cited Illinois with a “lack of institutional control” charge and implemented several recruiting restrictions and a one-year post-season ban.

When Pearl and Collins were both head coaches for four years in the Horizon League, the two men never engaged in the traditional postgame handshake, reportedly due to lingering feelings over the incident. When Thomas was asked about forgiving Pearl in a 2005 interview, he was quoted as saying “It’s hard to forgive a snake.” Thomas went on to play basketball at the University of Illinois, becoming its all-time leading scorer.

Southern Indiana

In 1992, Pearl got his first head-coaching job, at the University of Southern Indiana. He inherited a Screaming Eagles team that had won just 10 games in the previous season. Pearl posted a 22–7 record in his first season, and led the Eagles to nine straight NCAA D-II tournaments in addition to winning four Great Lakes Valley Conference titles.

In 1994, USI finished with a 28–4 record en route to a loss in the D-II championship game; in 1995, the Eagles won 29 games and claimed the D–II championship. A team from the GLVC played for the National Championship every year after his first season at USI. Pearl was named the NABC Division II coach of the year after his national championship. He left USI with a 231–46 record over nine years.


Despite Pearl’s success at turning Southern Indiana into a major power, it took him almost a decade to return to Division I; reportedly, he was blackballed by the Division I college coaching fraternity for his role in inadvertently revealing violations at Illinois by submitting a different, deceptive accusation.

Pearl took over as head coach of the Milwaukee Panthers men’s basketball team in 2001. In just four seasons, he compiled 86 wins (including a school-record 26 in 2005, and a new Horizon League record for winning percentage) and led Milwaukee to their first NCAA tournament appearances in 2003 and 2005. Pearl led them to the Horizon League tournament title in both of those years. He also led the school to its first ever NIT bid, as well as its first-ever NCAA D–I postseason victory, in 2004. Milwaukee’s 2005 NCAA Tournament run capped the best season in school history, as the Panthers won both the regular season and conference tournament titles, defeating the Detroit Titans in the championship game. Using an intense full-court press, the Panthers scored two upsets in three days over Alabama and Boston College en route to the Sweet Sixteen, where they fell to eventual national runner-up University of Illinois. The Panthers finished their season 26–6 and were ranked in the coaches poll at the end of the season for the first time ever (# 23). Pearl left UWM after the 2005 season, his fourth, as the Horizon League’s leader in all-time winning percentage (51–13, 79.7%).



On March 28, 2005, Pearl was named as the new head coach at Tennessee, succeeding Buzz Peterson. Tyler Smith had signed with the Vols under Peterson, but decided not to attend Tennessee. Jamont Gordon went to conference rival Mississippi State. Smith opted for a season of prep school before heading to Iowa, though later transferred to Tennessee and became a starter. Pearl stirred up more controversy when he released Matthew Dotson from his scholarship.

Expectations were low for the Vols in Pearl’s first season. Having lost their two leading scorers from a team that had been just 14–17 the previous season, Tennessee was picked to finish fifth in the six-team Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference. However, the season started off well, and Tennessee entered the national rankings in December, when it routed then No. 2-ranked Texas, 95–78.

The Vols went on to lead the SEC East for virtually the entire season, with other highlights being a win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena and two wins over eventual national champion Florida. But after entering the AP Top 10 in February, the team lost six of its last nine games and dropped to a ranking of 18th. Although Tennessee won the SEC East, it was upset in the second round of both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, the latter as a no. 2 seed. The team’s 22–8 record was one of the best in school history. Following the season, Pearl drew accolades from national recruiting services for signing one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, featuring three top-50 recruits in Duke Crews, Wayne Chism and Ramar Smith.


On January 22, 2007, Pearl attended a Lady Vols game with his upper body painted orange. He and a few of his players spelled out “V-O-L-S” (Pearl was the “V”). Pearl stood in front of the student section and cheered for the Lady Vols as they came out. Pearl’s actions brought national media attention to the Tennessee program, and highlighted efforts to support women’s collegiate athletics. Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt returned the favor on Senior Night for the men’s team on February 27, 2007. Before the game, Summitt came out as a cheerleader, complete with uniform, and she led the crowd in a rendition of Rocky Top. The seventh-largest crowd in school history also witnessed Pearl’s squad rout the then No. 4-ranked and defending national champion Florida Gators.

Pearl’s team went on to finish tied for second in the SEC East with Vanderbilt, earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols crushed Long Beach State by 35 points in the first round, then rallied to upset Virginia to reach Pearl’s second Sweet 16. The Vols were defeated in the next round by the nation’s top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, losing by a point though the Volunteers led the majority of the game. Tennessee’s 24 wins were then ranked third in the program’s history. Pearl was rumored as a candidate for the head coaching position at Iowa, but indicated on March 27, 2007, that he was not interested in leaving Tennessee.


On February 23, 2008, Pearl led the second-ranked Vols into in-state, undefeated rival Memphis to play the #1 ranked Tigers. After a back and forth, emotionally heated contest, Tennessee defeated Memphis 66–62, handing Memphis its first loss of the season and its first home loss in 47 games. The win also cemented UT with a # 1 rank the following week–the first #1 ranking in the school’s 100-year basketball history. However, one day after the rankings were posted, the # 1 Vols were upset by the Vanderbilt Commodores 72–69.

On March 5, 2008, Pearl’s team defeated the Florida Gators 89–86 to claim Tennessee’s first outright SEC Regular Season Championship in 41 years. On March 16, 2008 Tennessee was chosen as a #2 seed in the East region of the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament. Pearl’s Volunteers advanced to the semifinals (Sweet 16) of the East Regional, beating Pearl’s former Horizon League rival and 7-seed Butler in the second round. They ended their season losing to the Louisville Cardinals by a score of 79–60. The 31 total victories that season are the most in school history.


December 3, 2008, marked a significant date for Pearl as he was able to win his 400th game by defeating UNC-Asheville. In doing so, Pearl became the 6th-fastest basketball coach to ever reach the 400 mark and 2nd-fastest among active head coaches (behind Roy Williams). The night was also very important for the Tennessee basketball program. It marked the 35th consecutive victory at home for Pearl and the Vols, beating the previous streak of 33 wins which extended from January 2, 1966 to February 24, 1968. In addition, Tyler Smith recorded the school’s first ever triple-double when he had 12 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds. In March Pearl would lead the Vols to their first SEC Tournament Final in 20 years, where they would lose in a controversial finish to Mississippi State. The Vols went on to earn a 9 seed in the NCAA tournament where they were eliminated by Oklahoma State 77–75 on March 20, 2009. UT announced that they and Pearl just agreed to a six-year extension for Pearl to stay with the university.


On November 17, 2009, Pearl was able to record victory number 100 at Tennessee, the second fastest UT coach to reach the century mark, as his team defeated UNC-Asheville 124–49. The 124-point total was the most ever scored by Tennessee in a regular season game. Tennessee’s 34 assists also set a school record and its 16 3-pointers tied another.

On January 10, 2010, Tennessee defeated the #1 ranked Kansas Jayhawks in Knoxville, 74–68. This was the first time that Tennessee defeated a #1 ranked team at Thompson-Boling Arena.

On February 27, 2010, Tennessee defeated the #2 ranked Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville, 74–65, cementing the Vols (all 5 years that Pearl has coached) for its 5th straight NCAA tournament appearance.

On Bruce Pearl’s 50th birthday, March 18, 2010, Tennessee defeated San Diego State in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament by a score of 62–59. The Vols followed this victory with a second round defeat of Ohio University, 83–69, to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years and Pearl’s fourth Sweet 16 in six years.

On March 26, 2010 the Tennessee Volunteers advanced to their first Elite 8 in school history with a 76–73 defeat of the Ohio State Buckeyes. On March 28, the Volunteers narrowly missed a trip to the Final Four, losing 70–69 to the Michigan State Spartans in the Midwest Regional Final in St. Louis, Missouri.

Early in the 2010 season Tennessee beat nationally ranked Villanova and Pittsburgh, reaching a 7–0 record and #7 AP ranking. However, controversy from an NCAA investigation took its toll on the team. The Vols went only 4–8 in their last 12 games. After limping to an 8–8 conference record, Tennessee was blown out by 30 points in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Michigan. This was the largest margin of defeat in the history of the NCAA tournament between a #8 and #9 seed. As it turned out, this would be the last game Pearl would coach at Tennessee.

NCAA investigation

In the summer of 2008, Pearl invited high school junior Aaron Craft and members of his family to a cookout at his Knoxville home while Craft was on an unofficial visit to Tennessee. At the cookout, Pearl said that Craft wasn’t allowed to be there under NCAA rules, but encouraged all those in attendance not to tell anyone about it. When the NCAA began an investigation of the affair, Pearl not only lied about the cookout, but also told Craft’s father to lie as well.

On September 10, 2010, Pearl acknowledged the violations in the Craft affair, and also admitted lying about it to the NCAA. As a result, Tennessee imposed sanctions on Pearl and his entire staff including $1.5 million in salary reduction over the coming five years and a delayed retention bonus. His off-campus recruiting was also restricted completely from September 4, 2010 to September 23, 2011.On November 20, 2010, the SEC ordered Pearl to sit out Tennessee’s first eight SEC games.

After finding out about additional NCAA violations, as well as a violation of the school’s substance abuse policy by a player, Tennessee fired Pearl on March 21, 2011–three days after the Vols’ blowout loss to Michigan. On August 23, 2011, Pearl was given a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA, effective until August 23, 2014. This means that the sanctions imposed on Pearl will remain in force if he is hired by an NCAA member school within that period. Specifically, he is prohibited from engaging in any “recruiting activities”, which means he cannot contact recruits, although he may evaluate talent during that period. If a school does choose to hire him and chooses to challenge the NCAA restrictions, it must appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and “show cause” for why the sanctions imposed on Pearl should not follow him to that school. In imposing the penalty, the NCAA said that Pearl’s lies turned what would have been a minor case into a major one. His assistant coaches were also given one-year show-cause orders, in effect until August 23, 2012.

On August 30, 2011, Pearl accepted a position as Vice President of Marketing for Knoxville wholesaler H. T. Hackney.


On March 18th, 2014, Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs announced the hiring of Pearl as the next head coach of the Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team. On the opportunity, Pearl said, “I’m humbled and blessed to be back in the game that I love. I don’t know how long it will take, but it’s time to rebuild the Auburn basketball program, and bring it to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy. I’m thrilled to join the Auburn family and appreciative of this opportunity and the challenge that awaits.” Bruce Pearl signed a 6-year contract worth $2.2 million per year with a $100,000 annual escalator

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