IOWA CITY — Former Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl said he was "pretty emotional" about returning to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday to meet former players and assistants of the 1986-87 men's basketball program.
Pearl was a 26-year-old assistant coach that season and orchestrated much of Iowa's rebounding and defense during practice. He brought intensity every minute of the day, not just on the court.
"What do you mean practice? He was high energy all the time," said Gerry Wright, a senior center on that team. "You call him on the phone at 8 in the evening and he's still high energy. Six in the morning still high energy."
Pearl served under Iowa Coach Tom Davis from 1986 until 1992 when Pearl became head coach at Division II Southern Indiana. He left for Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later became head coach at Tennessee. Pearl led the Volunteers to the school's first No. 1 ranking in 2008 but was fired after last season for lying to NCAA officials during an investigation.
Pearl, 51, continues to live in Knoxville, Tenn., and now is vice president of marketing at H.T. Hackney and part-time college basketball analyst for Sirius/XM radio. The NCAA slapped him with a three-year show cause, meaning his sanctions follow him to any university that hires him.
He hopes to work in television possibly as soon as next season.
"I hope I get a chance to do television next year and see if I’m any good at it," he said. "If I am and if I like it, it might be something I’ll stay with. We’ll see."
Twice Pearl was linked as a candidate for the Iowa basketball job in the last five years. Both times he declined any overtures, he said, out of loyalty for Tennessee.
"It’s a blessing to hear from so many friends and people in the media and things like that," Pearl said. "But I only was acting out of loyalty to Tennessee, in all honestly. Tennessee gave me the chance of a lifetime. Tennessee gave me the chance to see if I could do it at the highest level in the SEC. So the only reason why I stayed and never interviewed and never pursued it was because I was happy at Tennessee and she deserved my loyalty."
Pearl is perhaps best remembered around the Big Ten for secretly taping Chicago prep Deon Thomas talking about receiving improper benefits from Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins. Thomas sued Pearl, and Collins was not found guilty by the NCAA. But the NCAA found other violations at Illinois and banned the school from the postseason for one year. There are bitter feelings — especially from Illinois fans — that linger to this day.
"Just ask the question: were they better off after than before?" Pearl said. "It’s a part of the process. I know there are probably a lot of fans in Illinois that are glad that I got what I got. That’s fine. I deserve what I got. I made a mistake. I said it then and I believe it now, it’s a part of the process you have to have.
"Some of it’s ugly and uncomfortable and it bit me at the wrong time when obviously the NCAA was trying to make statements that they’re going to take all violations seriously. I paid a heavy price."
Still when asked if he'd feel comfortable broadcasting a game in Champaign, Ill., Pearl said, "Yeah, I do."
Pearl first met Davis at Boston College when Pearl became the school's basketball mascot to help develop student support, Davis said.
"When I saw how good he was and how energetic, and he loved doing it, he just got deeper and deeper into the program," Davis said. "Four years later when I left to take the Stanford job, I offered him a job to be (a graduate assistant).
"He was facing big-buck jobs in sales. He was in the business school. You could see that he was going to be successful in whatever he entered. So that's how his career started."
Pearl arrived with Davis in Iowa City and said he wanted to keep up the competitive level in practice.
"I couldn’t add much to Tom Davis’ basketball knowledge," Pearl said. "He’d forgotten more than I’d knew and probably has forgotten more than I know. So I had to find a way to make a difference to contribute. So mine was to try to provide some intensity and some passion, a level of expectation for how we were going to train, how we were going to practice, how we were going to go to class.
"I was probably on those guys more as a 26-year-old young assistant than even Tom would have been. His job was to teach and coach and he had to do it all. My job was to make sure we competed so that when we got out on the practice floor, those guys felt pretty good that they weren’t going to see anything in the game that was going to be any more intense. I tried to put a lot of pressure on them."
Here's what Pearl had to say about the reunion and the 1987 team:
"It’s honor to be invited, and it’s actually pretty emotional to come back and see a place you went to work every single day, a place that you loved and a place where you were so appreciated our fans.
"We had a lot of great, great memories of competing in the Big Ten. Putting up 101 on Bob Knight was pretty significant. It was the first time anybody had ever scored 100 points on Coach Knight. I would think though, the road to the Final Four, that run on the West Coast, going to Arizona, and then on up to Seattle and then getting so close to the Final Four."One of the most depressing weekends you could spend in New Orleans was going to the Final Four -- Coach (Gary) Close and I and our families -- and not bringing our basketball team. I think we could have gone there and Indiana won it ... I think we could have gotten to Indiana. I think we could have won it."