Bruce Pearl: Jewish Coach, Teacher, and Yes, Role Model
Updated: 2013-01-23 10:57:29
North Shore Hebrew Academy High School Archives
By: Elliot Steinmetz, Varsity Basketball Coach, North Shore Hebrew Academy High School
Bruce Pearl: Jewish Coach, Teacher, and Yes, Role Model
A little over a year ago I had the opportunity to eat Shabbat dinner with Coach Bruce Pearl. I had been invited to Memphis as a guest speaker at the annual Cooper Memphis basketball tournament and I happened to be coaching in the tournament as well. As luck would have it, Coach Pearl, formerly the head coach of the University of Tennessee’s men’s basketball team, was the headline speaker for the weekend and the two of us ended up eating the Friday night meal at a mutual friend, Dr. Ed Wiener. Dr. Wiener, who is a dentist in Memphis, and by all accounts a great one, was also the fourth round pick of the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1955 NBA Draft. It would take a whole article (or more) to give over the stories I have heard over the last bunch of years from Dr. Wiener, and perhaps I will put that together at a later date. For the purposes of this article, it was Dr. Wiener and his wonderful family that afforded me the opportunity to sit next to Coach Pearl that Friday night.
There was a wide array of conversations at the dinner table and a wide array of guests as well. The discussion started with Maccabi USA experiences (Coach Pearl led the United States Open Team to a gold medal in the Israel Maccabiah Games in 2009; I was fortunate enough to coach the United States Youth Team and win a gold medal in Australia in 2011; Dr. Wiener represented the United States at the Fourth Maccabiah Games in 1953 in Israel and and led the U.S. team to gold ; and Dr. Wiener’s son, Craig, also played in the Maccabi games a number of years ago). The topic of religious observance was discussed as the table included people from all kinds of Jewish backgrounds, observant and non-observant. As the conversation continued and the comfort level rose, the conversation turned to the recent incident which led the NCAA to dole out a three year show-cause penalty to Coach Pearl. What happened next and what Coach Pearl then did later that night when he addressed the approximately three-hundred players at the tournament forever changed my perception of the man and instantly instilled in me a tremendous amount of respect for the courage he showed.
But first a little background.
According to an ESPN.com article, “Pearl was cited for unethical conduct for lying to investigators in June 2010 about improperly hosting recruits at his home and urging others to do the same. He was also found to have interfered with the NCAA's investigation after he contacted a recruit's father who had also been interviewed by investigators. Two months after his initial interview, he met again with NCAA investigators to tell them he had misled them.”
Ultimately, the transgression itself was not that severe. It was the cover-up and dishonesty during the investigation which led to Coach Pearl’s NCAA penalty and eventual dismissal from the University of Tennessee. The show-cause penalty received prohibits Coach Pearl from doing any recruiting until August of 2014. Any school that would want to hire him during that period would have to go in front of the NCAA and argue for removal of the sanctions. Coach Pearl accepted responsibility and chose not to appeal the punishment stating, “These mistakes that were made were made by myself, and I take full responsibility for them. I'm trying to do the very best I can to lead through this adversity, to be an example of what happens when you're not forthcoming, when you don't tell the truth all of the time and be acceptable of the consequences.”
Despite his decision not to appeal, Coach Pearl shared the same thoughts as many others in the basketball world - the penalty was too severe and clearly an example was being made. The public comments stopped there. Coach Pearl later turned down an offer to coach the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks D-League affiliate, and instead took a job as Vice President of Marketing at H.T. Hackney Co. in Knoxville, Tennessee. Recently, Coach Pearl joined the ESPN team as a college basketball analyst. Hopefully one step closer to returning to coaching the game he loves.
While the media coverage and Coach Pearl’s comments were recycled throughout the basketball world, there was a lot left inside Coach Pearl’s mind that was still unsaid. Before the conversation turned at that Friday night dinner, Coach Pearl had turned to me quietly and showed me a blank piece of paper. I asked him what it was. His response was, “My speech for tonight. I still have no idea what I am going to say”. I was blown away. I had spent weeks preparing a lecture for the following day and I was still beyond nervous to have to deliver it in front of all of those people. I asked him if he was nervous. He replied that he always gets nervous to speak, but that the key was faking calmness. I suggested that perhaps he pick pieces of the dinner conversation and the stories that were told to speak about. His response, somewhat paraphrased, was, “Good idea. I have a feeling the idea will present itself.”
Sure enough as the discussion moved towards the serious and sensitive topic of the NCAA sanctions and his dismissal from the University of Tennessee, Coach Pearl began to talk. The dining room became silent as we listened to a man spill his guts about the incident, the investigation, the cover-up, the punishment and ultimately the dramatic change in life and career that followed. When he finished what he had to say, and following a few inquisitive questions around the table, the conversation took a turn towards the light and mundane. I turned to Coach Pearl and pointed to the blank paper in his hand and said, “You don’t need that. You just gave your speech. Just repeat it and you will blow people away.”
About an hour or so later, I sat with Dr. Wiener and others in the tiny Cooper Yeshiva gym in Memphis and watched as three hundred silent teenage basketball players took in every single word that Coach Pearl spoke. He was captivating, brutally honest and most of all genuine in his remorse. He apologized profusely and personally to the young men in the room. He said, “I feel as though I have let you down”. As a Jewish coach who reached the pinnacle of the college basketball coaching world, Coach Pearl felt he was a role model to Jewish basketball players and coaches all over the country, and that with one mistake and one decision to be dishonest he threw that all away. Here stood a man who could not have been more genuinely apologetic and remorseful for a bad decision, yet not once did he speak about what he cost himself in terms of career and reputation. He spoke only of letting down those who looked up to him and pleaded with the young men to learn from his mistakes. He also made it very clear, and continues to make it clear when I speak with him every so often, that he is “not going to let what happened keep me down”.
When he finished speaking, he sat back down with Dr. Wiener and me and asked if the speech “went ok”. No response was needed. The night ended with Coach Pearl standing at the exit to the gym and waiting to shake every player’s hand because he wanted to “meet every single kid in the room” before he left. Sometimes you don’t have to have done the right thing to become a role model. Sometimes it’s how you handle having done the wrong thing and the ability to impart those lessons to others that make you a role model. Coach Pearl was a role model before the recruiting incidents and remains one after. His handling of the situation and his ability to be genuine in imparting words of advice to Jewish youth make him as much of a role model as his abilities on the college bench. The conversation the following day was all about the amazing honesty and openness with which Coach Pearl presented his thoughts to the audience. The players were inspired and encouraged by this man – a strong figure of leadership - who, admittedly, is imperfect, yet presented such a strong message and lesson that each of them took to heart and will carry with them into their respective futures.
I have no doubt that the speech he gave was cathartic and therapeutic for Coach Pearl. I imagine he left with a certain sense of self-forgiveness and maybe even felt the weight off his shoulders of so much he had previously left unsaid. When I told Coach Pearl the other day that I was writing this article, he responded and said, “That was a special night and an honor to visit with my brothers and sisters.” What I sometimes wonder is if he realizes how important his speech was to those who were present and the honor it was to have him visit with us. There was no media coverage, no tape recorders and no microphones. It was just Coach Pearl in the gym talking to players and coaches about basketball, life and adversity. In that moment he once again became exactly what he was apologizing for failing at – a coach, a teacher and a role model to Jewish players and coaches all over the country. As we get closer and closer to August of 2014, here’s to hoping Coach Pearl is back in the gym teaching basketball and life to young collegiate athletes at the highest level as soon as possible.