NCAA: Auburn basketball faces 4-year probation, Bruce Pearl suspension but no postseason ban
AUBURN — Auburn men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl is suspended two games as the program immediately begins a four-year probation period during which two scholarships will be reduced from the program's allotment, among other minor penalties, the NCAA Committee on Infractions determined Friday at the end of its multi-year investigation of Auburn.
The team avoided a 2021-22 postseason ban by self-imposing one the previous year, the NCAA determined in its findings. Auburn will face a $5,000 fine plus 3% of the men's basketball budget — and a number of show cause penalties were handed to Pearl's former assistant coaches — but the culmination of a four-year cloud hanging over Auburn comes off as a slap on the wrist relative to other recent NCAA sanctions.
The university will not appeal the committee's decision. In an unattributed statement, Auburn said, "We are pleased that a conclusion has been reached in this case. For the last four years, Auburn has been proactive and cooperative with the NCAA enforcement staff and Committee on Infractions. We have been and will continue to be committed to NCAA rules compliance. As such, we accept all penalties and are ready to move forward."
The investigation stemmed from former assistant coach Chuck Person's September 2017 arrest and eventual conviction for accepting bribes to steer pro prospects to an agent and financial adviser. It was part of a wide-reaching FBI investigation into corruption throughout college basketball.
As part of the NCAA sanctions released Friday, Person faces a 10-year show cause penalty, which means, according to the report: "During that period, any NCAA member school employing him must restrict him from any athletically related duties unless it shows cause why the restrictions should not apply."
Auburn fired Person in November 2017. In 2019, he was sentenced to community service and two years of probation.
Person accepted $91,500 in bribe payments from a financial advisor in exchange for arranging meetings with two players and their parents, the report found. "In doing so, (Person) violated the trust of his student-athletes and their families," it says. "Rather than protect them, he intentionally brought opportunists into the Auburn men's basketball program and, using his influence, introduced them to the student-athletes and their families."
In explaining Pearl's two-game suspension, the committee's report says that Pearl "violated head coach responsibility rules because he did not adequately monitor the associate head coach and failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance."
In a news conference explaining the findings, committee chief hearing officer Vince Nicastro said Pearl's history of NCAA rule violations did factor into the investigation and sanctioning process. When Pearl was the head coach at Tennessee, he faced a three-year show cause penalty. He was fired from Tennessee in 2011.
Another former Auburn assistant, Harris Adler, received a one-year show cause penalty because he refused to participate in an in-person or virtual follow-up interview during the investigation process. According to the NCAA's report, Adler had given two interviews but was asked to participate in a third in September 2020 after new information was uncovered. He refused to do the interview over the course of two months, citing family health issues.
There was another potential violation discovered and then disproven during the investigation, in which Adler was thought to have paid the tuition of a walk-on athlete. The investigation found this "violation was not demonstrated," according to the report.
The NCAA accepted a number of Auburn's self-imposed recruiting restrictions from the last four years, and most notably, the report stated that the Tigers' self-imposed postseason ban for 2020-21 was enough to avoid facing that punishment this year.
Although the approach was successful in this case — Auburn wouldn't have made the NCAA Tournament last season regardless, and the program minimized its official consequences — self-imposed sanctions do not automatically mitigate punishment handed down by the NCAA, which took 1,536 days after Person was charged to determine Auburn's penalty.
"These cases take a little longer than people think they should," Nicastro said. "I think part of that is the thoroughness of the investigation."
Nicastro also said the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the timeline of infractions investigations.
This is Pearl's eighth season at Auburn, a tenure that includes a 145-93 record and a trip to the Final Four in 2019.
"I’m appreciative of Auburn University, our leadership, the AU family and our current and former student-athletes as we navigated through the challenges of the last four years," Pearl said in a statement Friday. "... It is time to put this behind us. As part of our penalty, I will begin my two-game suspension (Saturday) against Nebraska."
Auburn (7-1) is scheduled to play Nebraska (5-5) at 10:30 a.m. CT in Atlanta. The Tigers host North Alabama on Tuesday, setting up Pearl to return for the team's trip to St. Louis on Dec. 18.
The two players involved in the FBI investigation were Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. On Nov. 2, 2017, Auburn announced Wiley and Purifoy would sit out indefinitely from game action, identifying them as the previously unnamed "Player 1" and "Player 2" in the federal complaint against Person. The assistant coach was indicted by a federal grand jury and fired by Auburn five days later.
In January 2018, the NCAA announced Wiley would not be eligible to play the remainder of the season, a ruling that was upheld after Auburn appealed. Purifoy was ruled to be ineligible for the first 30% of the next season.
Auburn's final penalty states that all records in which Wiley and Purifoy competed while ineligible will be vacated. It remains unclear which games that entails, but Auburn's media relations staff is required to contact the NCAA and conference officials within 14 days to identify the appropriate timeline for vacated wins.