NEW YORK (JTA) — Bruce Pearl, a big-time college basketball coach and spokesman for Jewish causes, was a week or so early on his mea culpas during the Yom Kippur season.
Pearl, the wildly popular men’s coach at the University of Tennessee, has orchestrated a major turnaround since taking over the program in 2005, leading the traditional football powerhouse to its first-ever No. 1 ranking in basketball last year.
In the process he has taken up Jewish causes, including serving as coach of the gold medal-winning U.S. men’s basketball squad at the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel and speaking on behalf of local groups, including the Jewish Federation of Knoxville. In 2007 he rocked the house with a motivational speech at the Jewish federation system’s annual General Assembly in Nashville.
These days, however, Pearl finds himself in the middle of controversy.
At a news conference on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a teary Pearl acknowledged that he had lied to NCAA investigators looking into alleged recruiting violations. Since then he has been skewered by the media.
But the Jewish charities he has helped are standing by their man.
“We are supportive of him,” Jed Margolis, the executive director of Maccabi USA, told JTA in an interview Tuesday. “People make mistakes, and he has owned up and taken responsibility for them, and I feel very comfortable.”
Pearl has become one of Maccabi USA’s most prominent faces along with former Olympians Lenny Krayzelberg, Mark Spitz and Kerri Strug.
“His impact on the games was very positive, and not just because of the medal he won,” Margolis said. “He was a good role model and teacher, and had a wonderful experience in Israel. He was a real shining light for us.”
The organization’s president, Ron Carner, also sent an open letter to the embattled coach offering his support.
“In the past few days I have been contacted by many of our board members and executive committee as well as our athletes — all unanimously agree that I should write in an official capacity to reassure you that the entire Maccabi USA family is behind you during this trying time,” Carner wrote.
Pearl is slated to speak Sunday to Maccabi USA funders in Greenwich, Conn., the day after Yom Kippur, and again next month in Florida.
Margolis, who enjoyed Shabbat dinner with Pearl and his family at the Chabad of Knoxville several weeks ago, insisted that Maccabi USA never considered dropping the coach.
Pearl has become known in Tennessee for his philanthropy, where he serves as a spokesman for the United Way. In addition to his speech at the federations’ General Assembly, he regularly speaks to groups associated with the Jewish Federation of Knoxville and is an avid supporter of Hillel at the University of Tennessee, which has about 500 Jewish students, according to the local federation’s executive director, Jeff Gubitz.
The coach regularly lends out his office to Hillel, which does not have an official campus space, for Torah study. And Pearl, who belongs to the Conservative synagogue Heska Amuna, where he attended services the first day of Rosh Hashanah, regularly donates memorabilia for local charities, according to Gubitz.
Pearl’s actual infractions might seem minor to the casual observer: According to reports, he made excessive phone calls to recruits and used unauthorized phones to do so, and then lied about the infractions. But his critics say that Pearl doesn’t have much room for error — 20 years ago, as an assistant coach for Iowa State, he famously was the whistleblower who outed another assistant coach at the University of Illinois for trying to secure a recruit by offering him an SUV and cash.
In the cut-throat world of major college basketball recruiting, Pearl broke a serious taboo, and once he was busted for lying about his own infractions, his peers and the press pounced, sparking scores of articles lambasting him and calling for his ouster. The University of Tennessee has not fired the coach, but it has docked him $1.5 million in pay over the next five years and has barred him from off-campus recruiting for the next year.
In the face of this tidal wave of criticism and sanction, Pearl continues to enjoy the support of Jewish organizations, including the Jewish federation in Knoxville.
“I think that Bruce is a positive individual and has come out on top from some other situations, and I am sure he will in this situation,” Gubitz said. “I know he has an incredible amount of remorse there. But Bruce is one of those people who I’m sure is harder on himself for tripping over some rules or guidelines than anyone else.”