Pearl was then a little-known Iowa assistant, and he did something coaches never, ever do: call the cops on one of their own. Pearl was recruiting Chicago prospect DeonThomas for Iowa. Thomas told Pearl he had a hell of an offer from Illinois: $80,000 and a new Chevy Blazer. Pearl recorded the conversation and notified the NCAA.
This year, Bruce Pearl is a liar and a cheat.
Pearl is now the Tennessee head coach, and he admitted Friday to lying to NCAA investigators about excessive phone calls to recruits. Pearl will be docked $1.5 million in pay over the next five years, and he will be prohibited from recruiting off-campus for a full year. The NCAA could punish him further.
Pearl was once the NCAA's most famous whistle-blower; now he is one of its most infamous liars.
What happened to Pearl between 1990 and now?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Pearl helped the NCAA bust Illinois 20 years ago for the same reason he lied to the NCAA this time around: self-interest.
It is the same reason some coaches break rules every day of the week and twice on their day off. Two decades ago, Pearl saw an opening, a chance to bring down a rival, and he took it. This year, he saw a chance to get a recruiting edge (and cover his own butt), and he took that, too.
The NCAA is a ridiculous and antiquated organization in many ways, but despite public perception, humans do work there. They understand the rule book is too long and people make mistakes. That's why the NCAA has the same policy that your mom and dad probably had -- screwing up is one thing, but lying about it is much worse.
So Pearl really committed a serious sin, the NCAA equivalent of lying to a police officer. He is lucky he wasn't fired. Former Michigan football graduate assistant AlexHerron lied to investigators last year, and that's why he is now a former graduate assistant.
But, of course, Herron was expendable and Pearl, who has built an unlikely hoops power at Tennessee, gets to keep his job. This is the same Tennessee community that was outraged when LaneKiffin left for USC, because (gasp!) Kiffin had lied about his commitment to Tennessee. Kiffin and Pearl and Tennessee administrators all have something in common: they all act in their own self-interest.
This is why it's so hard to trust anybody in college sports. There are a lot of good people who got into coaching for the right reasons, but when you take extreme competitors and put them in a system in which cheating is usually rewarded and rarely punished ... well, coaches cheat for the same reasons athletes use steroids: because they can.
The weakest, most cut-throat coaches usually win; the best, most conscientious coaches often lose; and those in the middle have a very hard time following the rule book.
Pearl was no better than most people in his profession 20 years ago, and he is no worse now.
He has a famous ongoing feud with JohnCalipari -- it started when Cal was at Memphis and the two jockeyed for position in the state of Tennessee, and now, with Calipari at Kentucky, it has become a classic Southeastern Conference coaching rivalry.
But the two men have far more in common than they would like to admit. Both have long been outsiders in their own profession. Calipari built UMass from nothing and Memphis from the rubble, and Pearl's name was dirt after he turned in Illinois -- he put together 13 straight winning seasons at Southern Indiana and Wisconsin-Milwaukee before Tennessee gave him a chance. And Calipari and Pearl are both relentless self-promoters, the kind of guys who sell so hard that you might find yourself believing everything they say, whether you want to or not.
Friday, Pearl said this:
"I provided incorrect and misleading information to the NCAA. I do apologize from the bottom of my heart. I let everybody down."
He had tears in his eyes as he said it -- genuine tears, I'm sure. Nobody likes getting caught in a lie. What a world, what a sport. Bruce Pearl went from hero to villain and didn't have to change a bit.