NCAA, coaches have much to reconcile as Final Four begins

Pearl prepares team for first-ever Final Four appearance (1:19)

Take a behind-the-scenes look at Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl as he gets his team ready to take on Virginia in the Final Four. (1:19)

MINNEAPOLIS -- In a Zion Williamson-less Final Four that lacks a blue blood, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is playing the role of the Pied Piper.

As reporters and cameras surrounded him at Thursday's Final Four news conference, Pearl was a headliner, exhibiting his trademark enthusiasm and holding court on a number of topics.

He is the best story and the biggest show, an emotional leader who will probably laugh, smile, frown and cry -- maybe in the same game -- this weekend. His ascension to this moment, a first Final Four appearance for him and his program, is a comeback story made for this event.

And for those who've enjoyed his runs at UW-Milwaukee (Sweet 16 in 2005), Tennessee (Elite Eight in 2008) and now Auburn, he's more than a maestro. He's a hero.

But for others, Pearl is a polarizing figure who has excelled amid controversy. He was fired by Tennessee in 2011 for lying to the NCAA about a barbecue he hosted for recruits, including former Ohio State star Aaron Craft. When an FBI investigation in late 2017 revealed an intricate bribery scheme, one of Pearl's assistants, Chuck Person, was charged in the probe, released from the university and faces jail time. Two of Pearl's players, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, were sidelined because of "potential eligibility issues" tied to the investigation.

Meanwhile, Pearl and other leaders of prominent programs, including Kansas' Bill Self, Arizona's Sean Miller and Oregon's Dana Altman, have seen their programs connected to the investigation though they have remained untouched.

"I knew what I knew," Pearl said Thursday of the FBI probe, "and I knew all that I didn't know. ... I was comfortable that if we stayed the course, that we were going to be fine."

"There were several people -- and I may even have had a conversation with some of you and said just trust me on this one. I'm going to be OK in this."

Pearl has come out more than OK in this. And so have the Tigers. They are at the Final Four.

Which makes you wonder, how much does the FBI investigation even matter to the general public?

College basketball hasn't stopped. Only a handful of players have been barred from competition. And most coaches continue to do their jobs.

To many within the game, the staying power of these high-profile coaches is proof of the exaggeration and, perhaps, miscalculation of the fans and media who once figured the FBI's investigation would damage the sport forever. (Remember when many thought the same of doping scandals in cycling and athletics, or the steroid era in baseball?) In 2017, federal officials made the proclamation that they had the "blueprint" of corrupt college basketball coaches and encouraged all wrongdoers to step forward or risk the most severe punishment.

They're still waiting, and so are we. Another Final Four will commence on Saturday with no more than a whisper about the FBI's ongoing investigation, with the sweeping round of dismissals and suspensions that have yet to happen.

The situations these coaches find themselves in are rooted in the same conversation, about the people whose services must be secured in order for schools to run their business (the players), and where the money is allowed to flow in the business of college basketball (to everyone but the players).

Miller and Arizona signed the nation's top recruiting class. Self and Kansas saw Silvio De Sousa suspended for two seasons by the NCAA following federal testimony that his guardian was paid by an Adidas consultant, and yet KU challenged for the Big 12 title and comfortably reached the NCAA tournament. Will Wade was held out of competition by LSU, yes, but the SEC-winning team he assembled remained intact (implicated players and all), all the way to the Sweet 16.

Beyond the FBI investigation, Michigan State has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

For Pearl and others who've successfully walked that tightrope and navigated that longstanding landscape the past two years, their charisma has always helped.

After Tennessee fired him, Pearl was an engaging analyst for ESPN, a job that helped him make the jump to Auburn in 2014 without taking a step back and landing with a lesser program.

Likability matters to those who watch college basketball. And Pearl, a persuasive and eloquent character whenever he's in front of a camera, is captivating and quotable, as he was Thursday. Although he has been in the NCAA's crosshairs at various points over the past decade, he has come to Minneapolis as an overachiever, the man who took a shorthanded SEC afterthought to wins over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Behind the scenes, a group of lesser-known coaches continues to help sustain the lifeblood of college basketball's underground economy.

Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend has been named in reports after allegedly telling a go-between "if that's what it takes to get him" in a conversation about a recruit. Brian Bowen Sr. told a court he "could not recall" whether Oregon assistant Tony Stubblefield had given him cash during his son's unofficial visit. Arizona assistant Mark Phelps lost his job in February over allegations of impropriety around recruit Shareef O'Neal's academic transcripts.

To repeat, it was two years ago that the FBI cast a wide net that seemed to threaten the stability of the sport. The rumblings then? A mole hill would become a mountain as the FBI uncovered more unscrupulous acts. But we're still waiting for the earthquake. We are still waiting for change.

It won't happen this week, not after Bruce Pearl walked into the NCAA-moderated news conference with the confidence of an emperor.

"Our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like [allegations of wrongdoing], and when we don't do our job, there are consequences," Pearl said Thursday.

Maybe so, but for Pearl and a program that reached its first Final Four only after new allegations came to light, it's difficult to argue that those consequences have impacted Auburn. And after two years, truthfully, the same can be said for college basketball.