AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl breezed through the doors of Bob’s Victory Grille on Thursday night, grinning wildly. As he made his way to a raised table at the back of the restaurant, a middle-aged woman stopped him and said something off-color that caught the attention of Auburn’s embattled head basketball coach. Pearl, ever the charmer, comically widened his eyes with a “Who, me?” look and delivered a one-liner that had the entire table doubled over in laughter. Without missing a beat, he slipped on his coat and moved through the crowd to take his seat for the weekly radio show “Tiger Talk.”
At first glance, you wouldn’t think that an FBI investigation hung over Pearl’s head. Or that his assistant coach, Chuck Person, had been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York earlier in the week. Or that two of his best players — Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley — were ineligible as a result of the investigation. Or that a recent ESPN report alleged that he was not cooperating with the school’s internal review of the matter, and that if he continued to do so, he would be fired, too.
No matter. Earlier in the day, Pearl told reporters how excited he was to begin the season against Norfolk State on Friday night. He had butterflies in his stomach, he said, and any coach who didn’t feel the same way was either lying or “needs to find another line of work.” He was anxious, still toying with a few different lineups. And, no, he said he would not comment on the ongoing investigation.
Give Pearl this: He knows how to navigate controversy. And he knows how to play to a crowd. Back at Bob’s Victory Grille, in a room full of orange-and-blue clad fans chomping down chicken wings and slurping sweet tea, Pearl was comfortable and charming. Surrounded by his supporters, he finally set aside his default “no comment” approach to address the elephant in the room. He would, for the first time, apologize and do so with a tone reminiscent of sincerity.
“It’s a full-blown investigation, and it’s unfortunate,” he said. “But you know what? It was self-inflicted. We brought it upon ourselves, and we are battling every day to get through this and let the focus be on our basketball team. For me, I apologize. I’m sorry. Because I came here to bring a credibility and a competitive basketball program to Auburn. And we’re there. And unfortunately this has been just an awful distraction for the university and our fans. And I’m sorry about it.”
Twenty-four hours later, the doors to Auburn Arena were thrown open and 7,419 fans showed up to cheer on Pearl and the Tigers against Norfolk State.
Loyalty isn’t something that’s lost overnight, but it doesn’t shield against doubt entirely.
A married couple walking through a history of Auburn athletics installation near the entrance to the arena paused in front of a commemoration to the team’s 1986 trip to the Elite Eight. “It was him,” the man said to his wife, pointing to a picture of a younger Chuck Person shooting over a defender in his No. 45 jersey.
At the other end of the arena, an older gentleman with a perfectly parted head of white hair stood in line to get popcorn. He recalled taking his son to go see Person play at the now vacated Beard-Eaves Stadium more than three decades ago. Why Person would have his hand out for money, as the FBI investigation alleged, he just couldn’t understand.
But he had something else on his mind tonight.
“Is Bruce going to coach?” he asked.
He wasn’t sure. He’d read so many troubling reports, he said. At one point he asked whether this was all just “the tip of the iceberg.”
“I have a hard time believing it,” he said, exasperated. “But if they’re crooked, they ought to lock them up.”
Fifteen minutes later, Pearl led his team out of the tunnel to start the game.
There might not have been a bigger believer in Auburn basketball on Friday night than Chandler Fullman, the leader of the student section — “President of the Jungle” being his official title. A senior from Hoover, Alabama, he painted his chest bright orange with a blue-and-white striped letter “B” to help spell out “BRUUUUCE!” along with eight other shirtless classmates during the game.
Five years ago, when Tony Barbee was still running the program in circles, Fullman watched on TV as the student section sat half-empty night after night — even in rivalry games like Alabama, he recalled. But now, even for a throwaway opener against a Mideastern Conference school, he expected to draw a full house. The energy Pearl has brought to the program, he said, has been incredible. Never mind his checkered past, which included being fired by Tennessee for lying to NCAA investigators, he won over the Auburn fan base quickly. “I love Bruce,” Fullman professed. “I’m a supporter.”
But he couldn’t lie. As Fullman sized up the start of the season, he had a hard time remaining optimistic. A month ago — before anyone had heard of an FBI investigation into college basketball — he had visions of a run to the NCAA tournament, the program’s first trip the Big Dance since 2003. He’d read how Wiley was creating a buzz with the Team USA Under-19 squad during the summer and thought: This is going to be the year.
Instead, Wiley wore a blue hoodie and sat on the end of the bench, and Purifoy wasn’t even in the building.
“I mean, it still could be our year,” Fullman said in a tone convincing no one, least of all himself.
Still, he hung in there. Then again, when you make a habit out of painting your chest in support of a team, you can’t exactly turn tail.
“I’m doing to be here no matter what,” Fullman said. “But for the program as a whole, I think the situation is sad. I’m not going to be mad at Chuck Person because you’re innocent until proven guilty. But I think it’s just an unfortunate situation for Bruce and the program and Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and the whole crew.”
Fullman was rewarded with a 102-74 win to open the regular season. Bryce Brown, who had been saddled with the label of an outside shooter — a finesse player — was suddenly driving into the lane to score a career-high 31 points. Pearl was thrilled with the development of Brown’s game, but he couldn’t avoid questions about the bigger picture.
Asked about his administration’s silence regarding his future, Pearl said, “That’s OK, because we’re working through this together.” Instead, he was looking forward to Saturday, reviewing the game tape early that morning before heading across the street for the Auburn-Georgia football game.
“I’m excited about the weekend,” he said. “Who isn’t? God is going to bless us with a beautiful fall day. … I’ll be over there in the stadium having fun.” And it was, with No. 10 Auburn pummeling top-ranked Georgia.
Whether his athletic director and president feel the same way is up for debate. When asked about the state of the basketball program on Friday, Auburn president Steven Leath told ESPN, “I’m not going to deal with that right now.”
Pearl can smile and try to keep the focus on what happens on the court, but all is not well on The Plains. The investigation isn’t over, and the longer it drags on, the more questions there will be about the viability of the program and Pearl’s ability to continue leading it.
Fullman, who is tasked with getting students out to the games, said it might not be as easy as luring them through the doors with freebies anymore.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said of drumming up support, “it is a little harder.”
He, like everyone else wearing orange and blue, is hoping for a bit of good news, for something in this logjam to break. They still believe in Bruce Pearl and the life he’s breathed into Auburn basketball the last four years.
He hasn’t lost them yet.
They love Pearl’s one-liners. They just hope they won’t end up being the punchline when it’s all said and done.