Newly-announced Auburn University head basketball coach Bruce Pearl made a name for himself in the sports world with his years of success at Tennessee.
He also made a name for himself as an active part of the Knoxville Jewish community and beyond, coaching the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal in the 2009 Maccabi Games in Israel. He is also serving as president of the Jewish Coaches Association.
Auburn confirmed his hiring this morning.
“I’m humbled and blessed to back in the game that I love,” Pearl said on Auburn’s website. “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.”
After arriving in Knoxville in 2006, Pearl started getting involved with the local Jewish community, teaching a Hebrew Bible class and speaking at Jewish Federation events in the region. Two of his children had their B’nai Mitzvah in Knoxville.
In 2008 he spoke at Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El just before the annual Southeastern Conference basketball media days.
In 2009, he fulfilled a lifelong dream by leading the U.S. “dream team” in the Maccabi Games, a worldwide competition regarded as the “Jewish Olympics.”
To get the gold, the U.S. team had to take down defending champion Israel, 95-86, in overtime. Among those on the team was Pearl’s son, Stephen, who at the time was a top high school player in Knoxville and averaged seven points per game during the Maccabi tournament.
In his first season at Tennessee, he took over a team that had gone 14-17 the previous year and led them to a 22-8 record and first place in the SEC East. They lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but made the Sweet 16 the next two seasons.
His time at Tennessee started to unravel after a 2008 incident where he hosted three recruits at his home for a cookout. A secondary violation under NCAA rules, it became a major violation when Pearl was found to not have been forthcoming when the NCAA was investigating it in early 2011.
Because of the violation, he was fired in 2011 after leading Tennessee to the NCAA tournament for each of his six years there.
In the three years since, Pearl has been an analyst on ESPN and marketing manager for a Knoxville company.
In 2013, he spoke at a basketball tournament for Cooper Yeshiva in Memphis, where he apologized to the students, saying he felt that he had let those students down by reaching the pinnacle of the basketball world as a Jewish coach, and then with one bad decision threw away his position as a role model.
A Boston native, Pearl was the second-fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 300 wins in men’s basketball. Before going to Tennessee he was head coach at Milwaukee for four years, and before that led Southern Indiana to a Division II national championship.
In 2008, Tennessee basketball was No. 1 for the first time in the program’s history.
Sources say Auburn’s recently-hired assistant athletic director of compliance Dave Didion was the lead investigator on the Pearl case for the NCAA, making his hiring by Auburn more acceptable.
Pearl is now finishing his time under a three-year NCAA “show-cause,” where a school that hires him must make its case for doing so to the NCAA. He is also not allowed to recruit until the show-cause expires in August.
Auburn fired head coach tony Barbee last week immediately following the team’s first-round loss in the SEC tournament. The team went 14-16 overall, 6-12 in conference.
Auburn’s Jewish community is substantially smaller than Knoxville’s. According to the Tennessee Hillel, there are about 80 Jewish faculty members at Tennessee. Knoxville has two moderate-size congregations and a Chabad house, with roughly 2,000 Jews.
Auburn’s Jewish student enrollment has gone from 50 to 125 in the last six years. The city has one small congregation, Beth Shalom, which was founded in 1989.
An hour down the road, Montgomery has a Jewish community of 1100, and nearby Columbus, Ga., has a community estimated at 600. Birmingham and Atlanta are about two hours away from Auburn.
Rob Kulick, faculty advisor to Auburn Hillel, said he is “thrilled and excited” at the hiring, adding that Pearl “will be great for Auburn and great for our community.”
In a 2009 interview with this publication, Pearl noted “I wear my Judaism on my sleeve,” he added. “Let me amend that. I wear my Judaism and the Tennessee Vols on my sleeve.”
Now he has a sleeve with a different shade of orange.