NEW YORK — When men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl woke up in his home near Auburn University’s campus on the morning of Oct. 7, he spent 10 minutes praying, as he does every day. It was a normal day — until he checked his phone for messages and news, and learned that Hamas, a terrorist organization, had invaded Israel in a brutal attack and killed an estimated 1,200 people.
Pearl, who is Jewish, has deep ties to Israel, and he and his team had visited the country in the summer of 2022. Over the following days, Pearl learned about the horrible atrocities that had been committed — beheadings, murders, rapes, abductions and other heinous war crimes.
Beginning at 7:39 that morning, Pearl, who now has nearly 134,000 followers on X, tweeted or retweeted 16 times that day about the atrocities of the war, the evils of Hamas and its sponsor Iran, and the failures of the Biden Administration in protecting Israel, combined with praise for the former Trump Administration.
He was horrified but not altogether surprised by the attack. After all, Pearl, 63, had been fearing — and warning against — such an assault for years on social media and in personal conversations.
The attacks were “unprecedented,” he told NJ Advance Media on Friday night at Barclays Center after Auburn won the Legends Classic over St. Bonaventure. “Terrorists, cowards, targeting women and children and the atrocities that they did.”
He added: “If you’ve been following me on Twitter over the years, I’ve been calling out Iran for who they say they are and what they say they’re going to sponsor.”
Many coaches at any level — pro, college, amateur — are hesitant to reveal their views on sensitive subjects for fear of backlash, recruiting losses and, potentially, getting fired, and the Hamas-Israel war has become the most controversial issue of the day. Pearl, however, has no fear of being outspoken.
“Yeah, that’s a sensitive topic, but give him credit, he has a passion and he believes in what he says,” said Mark Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure men’s coach and a longtime friend of Pearl’s who grew up near him in Massachusetts.
“He’s a national name,” said UC Santa Barbara coach Joe Pasternack, who, like Pearl, is a member of the Jewish Coaches Association. “I think it’s amazing what he’s doing. I love it.”
Learning early about anti-Semitism
Pearl grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Boston with working-class parents. His dad was in sales, his mom was a secretary. He spoke Yiddish with his grandparents. As a young boy, he experienced anti-Semitism first hand.
“I grew up in Boston seeing real racism in great, wonderful ethnic neighborhoods and I saw a real anti-Semitism,” he said. “When you grow up being told that you murdered Christ, and you murdered Jesus, you murdered all my Christian friends’ God, it’s hard to deal with that when you’re a kid, and try to wrap your arms around that. And so obviously, it gave me that identity.”
In June 1967, when the Six-Day War began, Pearl was visiting his paternal grandfather Jack Pearlmutter, a Ukrainian immigrant who had escaped the Nazis. He sat on his grandfather’s lap as he watched television, something his “Pop Pop” rarely did.
(His parents shortened the family name to Pearl shortly before Bruce was born.)
“I was 7 years old and I asked him, ‘What are you watching television for, Pop Pop?’ and he said he was watching the Six-Day War on the news and he was afraid to go to sleep because he was afraid that when he woke up, Israel wouldn’t be there,” Pearl recalled. “I began to see how important it was to him.”
The Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab countries ended with Israel capturing and occupying the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.
“If Israel [had been] a Jewish state back in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s, millions of Jews would have gone there and survived,” Pearl said. “And so Israel’s survival both before it was a state and after it was a state [in 1948], matters to me. Israel was promised to us by God, and that’s where our people have lived forever.”
Teaching lessons of faith
After attending Boston College, Pearl entered college coaching and worked his way up the ranks. In his first head coaching job at Southern Indiana in 1995, he won a Division II national championship. He coached at Milwaukee (2001-05) and Tennessee (2005-11), leading the Volunteers to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight.
But in 2011, Tennessee fired Pearl after the NCAA charged him with unethical conduct and additional violations surfaced. He received a three-year suspension.
Auburn hired him in 2014, and he has taken the Tigers to four NCAA Tournaments, including the Final Four in 2019. But his time there hasn’t been without incident, either.
In 2021, after the FBI investigation into bribery in college basketball, the NCAA placed Auburn on probation for four years for unethical conduct involving former associate head coach Chuck Person. Pearl was hit with a two-game suspension for failing to monitor an assistant and failing to promote compliance.
Still, in January 2022, Pearl signed an eight-year, $50.2 million contract to remain at the school through 2030. It is essentially a lifetime contract.
Team chaplain Randy Roberts and Pearl encourage players to discuss Bible passages, sometimes in hotel rooms during trips. One of Pearl’s former players, Patrick Keim, is now a Campus Pastor at Church of the Highlands in Auburn, a mega-church where Pearl sometimes takes his team and other Auburn students.
“I don’t care how people pray,” Pearl said, “I just care that they do pray. And I know what it’s done for me, and for our program at Auburn. At Auburn, we pray before meals. We’re praying to Jesus, because that’s how my players are praying.”
Former Auburn and St. John’s guard Mustapha Heron, who is playing professionally in New Zealand, said in a phone interview that none of this made him uncomfortable.
“We would find a [Bible] verse and just read it and talk about it, honestly,” he said. “A lot of it was just about being a whole person, a good person, whether that be community, family, all that type of stuff, how it relates to being a good teammate and all that stuff. It’s a solid message, I think you could learn something.”
Heron, who is Black, said Pearl was able to relate to the players “because he’s a good person” and “you can just be comfortable around him.”
A Jew in the middle of the Bible belt, Pearl says he feels embraced by the fans at Auburn and has adapted while being the most politically vocal coach on Israel in his — or any — sport. He is concerned that some parents might not want to send their child to play for a Jewish coach, although he did land five-star Hudson Catholic guard Tahaad Pettiford for next season.
“I work as a Jewish basketball coach at Auburn University,” he said. “I work in the Christian community. I work in the evangelical community of the South, where my freedom of religion is unbelievable. It’s wonderful because they recognize, ‘Gee, that’s a basketball coach who’s trying to put people together [and] find common ground.”
On Sunday, Pearl prayed with Miles Fidell, the Pastor to the Auburn Community Church, “to rescue and save lives in Israel and throughout the Middle East.”
In August 2022, Pearl took his team to Israel for three games against Israeli national teams in what he called the inaugural “Birthright for College Basketball” tour. He hopes it will become an annual event that will bring top college basketball teams to Israel. Not everyone loved the idea of the trip, however.
Ibrahim Hooper, the director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, labeled it a “propaganda junket clearly designed to normalize Israeli apartheid and racial segregation, while ignoring Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and international law.”
“There are nine million people in Israel, six million Jews — ironic — and three million Arabs living together in that very small, tiny area,” he said. “You look at Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, the countries that surround Israel, almost 99.9% Arab, and just a trace of Jews and some none.
“So I don’t want to hear about Israel being an apartheid state. It’s a democracy. It’s actually an aircraft carrier for the United States right there in the Middle East.”
Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Pearl has maintained his steady stream of opinions on social media. In one post on Saturday, he compared Hamas to the Nazis and called for their destruction.
“The United States did not put conditions on its aid to the Allies when WWII broke out!” he wrote. “Hamas genocide is no different than the Nazis. All of the children in Gaza and Israel will be safer when these Barbarians are destroyed!”
Pearl said he’s “surprised” and “disappointed” by some of the pro-Palestine marches and events he’s seen on American college campuses — and noted that he hasn’t seen similar events at Auburn.
“We don’t teach our kids in these universities what a great country this is, and the incredible opportunities that are available to everyone,” he said. “And so they’re all rebels without a cause. Go live somewhere else and see just how incredible this place is. So we’ve got this crazy, woke, anti-American, anti-flag part of our population.”
While there are other Jewish head coaches in men’s basketball — including Pasternack, Duke’s Jon Scheyer and Florida’s Todd Golden — none is vocal on Israel and the war. Pearl said he gets “lot of calls and texts from other Jewish coaches and people in the media and friends that are like, ‘Thank you for being willing to stand up.’”
Pearl said his administration — Auburn’s athletic director John Cohen is Jewish — has not asked him to dial back his comments, either.
“If you read my Twitter account, it says basketball coach, it doesn’t say Auburn’s basketball coach,” Pearl said. “Because of freedom of speech, because we’re an educational institution, because the university has respected my right to free speech and freedom of religion, these thoughts and opinions are my own and they’ve allowed me to express them.”
Pearl said he doesn’t post “as often” now because he’s in-season. He said said “almost all” of the Auburn fans support him in his posts, too.
“This is not politics, this is good vs. evil,” he said. “This is calling out atrocity. It’s condemning Hamas, and Hamas must be eliminated and destroyed. And if there are other enemies in the Middle East that want to destroy Israel, including Hezbollah or the Iranian leadership, Israel is supposed to just sit back and wait for them to do another Oct. 7?
“Nobody should have a say in what Israel must do to protect its own people from this happening again.”
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