AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl wanted to talk about his team, the season and anything but the federal investigation that has ensnared his top assistant and engulfed the sport.
Pearl would only say Friday that the alleged behavior leading to the arrest of suspended associate head coach Chuck Person Tuesday on federal fraud and bribery charges “is unacceptable.”
He steered clear of the topic after that, making it a fairly short news conference.
A few hours after Pearl made his first public comments, Louisville named David Padgett its interim coach. He replaces Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid administrative leave in the wake of the investigation.
When he was introduced, Padgett said his task was not going to be easy, “It’s a very tumultuous time.”
Pearl would probably agree.
At his news conference, Pearl said he stood by the university’s initial statement, adding that, “I can’t and I won’t have any further comment.”
But the questions kept coming, and Pearl dodged them all.
He was asked 16 questions during a 10-minute news conference Friday before Auburn’s first preseason practice, and only the last one was unrelated to the investigation. He repeatedly tried to turn the focus back to his team and the opening of practice. All the players on the roster were on the court.
Asked if he would still feel optimistic if two players who allegedly received benefits were declared ineligible , he responded: “I feel like this team has got a chance to compete for the (NCAA) Tournament.”
“The reason why we’re having this press conference right now is really it’s the start of practice, and that’s what my focus is going to be,” Pearl said. “So because I’m not going to be answering any more questions about matters that are relating to this, if you have any more basketball questions, I’ll answer them. If you don’t, I can’t.”
Person is among 10 people that have been arrested in the corruption case , including four college assistant coaches and an Adidas executive. According to documents, Person received $91,500 in bribes to steer Auburn players to financial advisor Martin Blazer and tailor Rashan Michel once they turn pro.
Person said $18,500 of the bribe money went to the families of two unnamed recruits, according to federal documents.
The documents quote Person as touting a highly rated recruit who 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. He was on the court with his teammates Friday.
Before the news of the federal investigation, the program was rolling along.
Pearl seemed to be on the brink of turning things around and feels he has Auburn poised to make a run at its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. He brought in top recruits like Wiley, Mustapha Heron and Danjel Purifoy.
After winning 18 games last season, he said the program was “in really, really good shape.” Pearl wasn’t changing his tune Friday despite any potential fallout from the investigation.
“I do feel as confident going into the season as any season I’ve had,” he said.
Some fans aren’t so sure anymore.
Auburn has been granting full refunds to season ticket holders after selling them out for the fourth consecutive year under Pearl, giving out about 30 by Wednesday afternoon. The ticket office referred questions about how many refunds had been issued to a spokeswoman, who didn’t immediately respond to a request for an update.
When the university announced it had suspended Person, it said in a statement that the news of the investigation was “shocking,” that the school is committed to playing by the rules and that’s what is expected of its coaches.
Other schools have also taken personnel actions following the federal investigation of the sport.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich have already been placed on administrative leave after charges involving that program. The Cardinals brought in an alum Friday to replace Pitino.
Padgett, 32, is coming off his first season as an assistant following two seasons as Louisville’s director of basketball operations. He was a three-year starting forward with the Cardinals under Pitino.
Oklahoma State has fired assistant Lamont Evans , who was also arrested for cause after the top assistant to new coach Mike Boynton was ensnared in the federal investigation of basketball recruiting at seven universities.
Auburn opens the season Nov. 10 against Norfolk State.