Bruce Pearl’s efforts to infuse a once-moribund Auburn basketball program have been derailed after his associate head coach’s arrest as part of a nationwide federal bribery investigation of college basketball.
Chuck Person, one of the greatest players in Auburn history, faces fraud charges as part of the probe that has led to the arrests of four college basketball assistants , an Adidas executive and Louisville placing head coach Rick Pitino and longtime Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave.
The excitement of selling out season tickets, arrival of top recruits and possible NCAA Tournament bids have been replaced with uncertainty as the Tigers fan base await any potential fallout to Pearl or the program.
With practice set to begin Friday, some fans have already been granted refunds on season tickets, which had sold out for the fourth consecutive year and fifth time in Auburn history.
“They had sold out tickets in September and you’re talking about Auburn basketball,” said SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw, who played for Pearl at Tennessee. “So the momentum was obviously sky-high, higher than it’s been as long as I’ve been following SEC basketball for Auburn. Obviously that momentum took a big blow here.”
It remains unclear how a big blow it is for the school.
Pearl has canceled scheduled public appearances the last couple of days and neither the coach nor Auburn athletic officials have commented on the situation. The university has announced that Person is suspended without pay.
Louisville placed Pitino and Jurich on administrative leave . Like Pearl, Pitino wasn’t named in an indictment. They both have resumes tainted by NCAA violations, though Pearl has served his penalty while Louisville’s case is ongoing.
Pearl’s three-year show cause penalty for recruiting violations — and subsequent lies to investigators — while at Tennessee expired in August 2014, more than five months after his hiring by Auburn.
Pitino and Louisville, by contrast, are still appealing NCAA sanctions handed out in June following a sex scandal that unfolded nearly two years ago — and could cost the school its 2013 national title.
Documents state Person received $91,500 in bribes to steer Auburn players to financial advisor Martin Blazer and Rashan Michel, a former NBA referee turned high-end clothier, once they turn pro.
Person said he gave $18,500 of the bribe money to the families of two recruits, according to the federal documents. In the documents, Person touted a recruit who was the “ninth-ranked kid in the country” and would only “play a year and a half” at Auburn before turning pro. He arranged a meeting with the player, Blazer and Michel.
The player wasn’t named, but center Austin Wiley joined the team last December and was a five-star recruit.
Pearl, who proclaimed to Auburn fans at his introductory news conference that “I’m back,” quickly made clear then his expectations for the future but didn’t dodge questions about his past either.
“We will play for championships,” he said after his hiring.
Athletic director Jay Jacobs said he “would not have even considered him” if he hadn’t felt Peal’s apologies were sincere.
Jacobs and Pearl agreed not to contest the show-cause penalty so he could possibly hit the recruiting trail earlier. Pearl said he decided not to appeal initially, in 2011, because “it would lessen my position of accountability.”
Bradshaw, who has stayed in touch with Pearl and has “a great relationship” with him, said it appears the coach still has the confidence of Jacobs. He said the unknown is the immediate issue Pearl and his staff must confront with recruits and current players.
He said Auburn must brace for a season-long story line if it does stick by Pearl.
“Because the NCAA can take so long, it can become an exhausting PR distraction for your team and your athletic department,” Bradshaw said. “As the athletic department and the administration make the decision to support Bruce, if that’s the case, then they have to be willing to ride this out and understand that it could be a year of the story throughout the basketball season.”
Follow John Zenor on Twitter @jzenor