In the spring of 2006, Todd Bozeman escaped the purgatory of the NCAA’s show-cause sanction.
For 10 years, the prodigy-turned-castaway languished like a ghost ship. He was little more than a bar stool trivia question.
“Who was the coach of California when Jason Kidd led the team to a win over Duke in the ‘93 NCAA tournament?”
Bozeman was reborn five years ago when a little-known historically black college in northeast Baltimore tabbed him as its head coach. Morgan State University, a MEAC school with no discernible basketball history, took a flier on a washed-up cheater who sunk his own career before turning 35. That, at least, was the perception back then.
All these years later, Bozeman is still a trivia question, of sorts.
“Who is the only head coach in Division I basketball history to receive a show-cause penalty and ultimately land another head coaching gig?”
Hint: it’s not Clem Haskins or Kelvin Sampson or Dave Bliss.
The answer is, indeed, Todd Bozeman.
Now, the entire state of Tennessee - and the college basketball world as a whole – wonder if Bruce Pearl will ever join that trivia question.
Eighteen years ago seems like 80 years ago.
At 29 years old, Todd Bozeman, with his cropped haircut and sharp suits, held college basketball by the back of its neck in 1993. He was the young hot shot — the kid who was named interim head coach at Cal amid a fury of controversy. The old-timers claimed he pushed out veteran coach Lou Campanelli by underhandedly prompting a player revolt. Hardened warhorses like Dale Brown at LSU and Washington coach Lynn Nance didn’t shake his hand after games. Indiana's Bob Knight, Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, North Carolina's Dean Smith and even the legend of Berkeley himself, former Cal coach Pete Newell, spoke outwardly against Campanelli’s dismissal.
None of that mattered on the hardwood.
Bozeman defiantly answered critics by leading Cal, which started two freshmen and two sophomores, including Kidd, to an 11-2 record to finish out the year. The exclamation point came with a blockbuster victory over two-time national champion Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Three years later, the moral mathematics of high-level hoops caught up with Bozeman. He cheated. He lied. His 63-35 record and three NCAA tournament appearances meant nothing when he finally admitted to paying $30,000 to the family of point guard Jelani Gardner. The harsh penalty he ultimately received could have likely been avoided with a modest duck of the head and a humble, forlorn admittance of foul play from the start. Instead, he didn’t cooperate. He compounded it all by shoveling deception atop his misdeeds. By the time he fessed up, it was too late.
And for that, the NCAA’s gavel came crashing down on his career.
Todd Bozeman’s voice is breaking up.
“Hey man, if I lose ya, I’ll call ya back,” he bursts. “I get bad reception in this part of town.”
Bozeman is driving around Baltimore. The 47-year-old has the passion of his former self, but the wisdom of a man who's been to hell and back. In many ways, that’s been his exact road. In 1997, the NCAA dropped an eight-year show-cause penalty squarely on his lap. The news reverberated through every ring of every coaching circle. It was viewed, nationwide, as the execution of one of the most noteworthy young careers in the business.
“I didn’t really know what it was until (the NCAA) explained it to me,” says Bozeman, who was 33 when the noose was slipped over his head. “I didn’t think it would have the effect that it ended up having.”
Bozeman was naive. The impact of his wrongdoings didn’t translate.
“I didn’t think I would have to sit the whole time,” he says. “It ended up being 10 years. It was an eight-year sanction that ended up being a 10-year ban. I thought that because of my success, someone would hire me, or at least talk to me. That didn’t really happen.”
While it’s a common belief that a show-cause penalty is an iron-clad coaching ban, that is not really the case. For eight years, Bozeman rested his dreams on the glimmer of hope that the penalty affords. In reality, though, that glimmer is little more than an alchemist’s fantasy.
“Somebody can actually hire you,” he still says even today. “It’s a misconception that nobody can hire you — you can be hired, but that school will have to go before the committee on infractions to explain why they feel as though they should hire you. And why they want to hire you. And the committee wants to know if you’ve disclosed all the information to the school and been upfront.”
And who would ever want to go through all of that? Nobody. And no one did for Todd Bozeman.
It took a full two years after his show-cause was lifted on June 1, 2005 for a program to finally give him a chance. Morgan State ended the misery.
“(The show-cause) definitely affects you,” Bozeman says. “It had a great effect on my life. My father passed away on New Years Day in 2006 — to this day, it burns me and it hurts me that I didn’t get back into coaching while he was still living. He left here with that. You don’t like to have that happen. I embarrassed him and his name.”
And yet ...
“In the end, you can recover from anything,” Bozeman continues. “I’m a prime example of that. No one had really received a sanction like that before me and no one had come back from a sanction like that. It’s proof, but there’s still a scar there. Some people will never get past it. Some, though, think you paid your dues and they move on. I was lucky that I was young enough to recover from it.”
Next March 18, as the first round of the NCAA tournament tips off, Bruce Pearl will turn 52.
When Bozeman was terminated by Cal in August 1996, Pearl was already in his 14th season as a college coach. He started as an assistant at Stanford in 1982. By the time Bozeman’s indiscretions rolled around, Pearl was in his fourth year as head coach of Division II Southern Indiana. He, in fact, had already been through an NCAA investigation. Except, in that case — Pearl vs. Illinois-Champaign and Jimmy Collins and Deon Thomas, et al — Pearl was the whistle-blower.
While their violations are far different (there’s no evidence of Pearl ever giving a nickel to any recruit), the biggest difference between Bozeman and Pearl is that Bozeman was a 32-year-old wunderkind just looking to stay on top. He was a virtuoso trying to keep the orchestra intact. You can picture him slipping and sliding down the well of lies and deceit. The characteristics that made Bozeman such an exciting young coach — his swagger, determination and unabashed coolness — were also the traits that led to his downfall.
Then there is Pearl. The same way Bozeman transformed himself into the Behemoth of Berkeley, Pearl seemingly bronzed his own statue in front of Thompson-Boling Arena. All he had to do was tell the truth.
Pearl had nearly 30 years in the business on his résumé. He knew exactly what he was doing. And yet, he got swept away.
He fumbled around in a sad attempt to cover up his indiscretions — none of which were catastrophic. Then lied about it. And, finally, once rationale thought caught up, he clambered to make things right. Logical action, however, came just in time to hear the last tock on the clock.
Now, the noose is around his neck.
Bruce Pearl will be 55 when his three-year show-cause is lifted on Aug. 23, 2014.
Todd Bozeman has averaged 20 wins per season at a school that hadn’t won a total of 10 games in the three years prior to his arrival. Little Morgan State, historically the doormat in the MEAC, has danced in March twice during his tenure.
“Yeah, that would usually vault a coach to at least another opportunity,” Bozeman says flatly. “At some point that could still come. I’m not saying that I would look at that, but that’s right — my past has been held against me.”
Despite his rousing, unexpected success at Morgan State, no other program has come calling for Bozeman. Now he’s in a different kind of purgatory — he looks up toward a glass-ceiling separating him from his own past glory. The big boys aren’t ready to invite him back to the party.
The stigma of the show-cause still persists. Bozeman, however, comfortably bats the question away. He had the patience of a glacier in waiting for his rebirth. There’s no need to get greedy now.
“To be honest, I don’t even think about it anymore,” he says. “I’m just happy to be coaching. Remember, it was 10 years — 10 years that were taken away from me. I didn’t only miss the competition. I missed the interaction with the young people that I was mentoring and coaching.
“It’s not just about basketball.”
The charmed bliss of Bruce Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee ended as a congealed mess of lies, investigations and utter confusion.
And now he sets course toward uncertain waters. Pearl’s three-year show-cause stipulates that he is prohibited from “conducting any and all recruiting activities,” an added penalty that was never included in Bozeman’s sanction. That provision alone makes it improbable that anyone will even look in his direction prior to 2014.
Once Pearl’s penalty is lifted, maybe he can outwit history and join Bozeman in the trivia answer. He is, after all, a proven winner. Or, perhaps, he’ll just melt away, never given the opportunity to pull his ghost ship back to the mainland. He could fight like a pack of Alaskan dogs and it may never make a difference.
In purgatory, you never know which way you’ll exit.
NOTE: Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff also received a head coaching position after receiving a show-cause sanction. Senderoff, however, was an assistant coach when he was hit with the sanction, a result of his serving as an assistant on Kelvin Sampson’s staff at Indiana.