Auburn's recruiting ban that wasn't could add to school's NCAA issues

Auburn Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl points to his team during the NCAA basketball tournament. (Getty)

While the Auburn men’s basketball program waits for a seemingly inevitable Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, it appears that the Tigers have created even more problems for themselves than they were already facing.

A report last week from AL.com said that the school “did not conduct recruiting of any kind from September 2017-April 2018.” The media outlet cited Auburn athletics as the source for that information, adding that there were “no official visits, no unofficial visits, and no contacts or phone calls made to any recruits during that time.” The school never publicized this self-imposed sanction, and it may have remained a secret had coach Bruce Pearl not alluded to “some real strong penalties that were never made public” on a July podcast with CBS’ Jon Rothstein.

Last Wednesday, AL.com published its story about the self-imposed recruiting ban. But there was just one problem: The ban that supposedly stretched from the Sept. 26, 2017, arrest of assistant coach Chuck Person as part of the nationwide federal corruption investigation until the end of that season, wasn’t exactly ironclad. And if Auburn implemented a compliance policy in direct response to a potentially major NCAA rules violation by a member of its staff, and then flouted its own policy, that could magnify the issues that lie ahead for the basketball program.

“What Auburn was hoping could be a mitigating factor in dealing with the NCAA could wind up being an aggravating factor,” said a source with extensive knowledge of the NCAA investigative process. In NCAA parlance, “mitigating factors” often are steps a university took to be in compliance with the rules; those are taken into account by the Committee on Infractions when it comes to levying sanctions. “Aggravating factors” are just the opposite: Rule-flouting actions by a school that can increase the severity of sanctions.

Only Pearl, with his florid history of failing to adhere to recruiting parameters, could end up involved in this one. He was fired at Tennessee in 2011 after lying about having two recruits at his house for a cookout when the recruiting calendar did not permit it. Fifteen years ago, when he was at Milwaukee, the school turned in a secondary violation for an impermissible contact with a recruit that was cut from the same cloth — attending a function at Pearl's house.

And only Auburn, with its long and storied tradition of athletic dysfunction, could turn a potentially positive compliance decision into a potentially massive negative. Here’s how it happened:

Within 90 minutes of AL.com reporter Sam Blum tweeting his story about the self-imposed recruiting ban on Aug. 7, evidence of Auburn recruiting activity during the no-recruiting window began surfacing.

There was a tweeted picture from Athletes of Tomorrow, an AAU program from the Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs, showing darn near the entire team being treated to apparent insider access at Auburn on Feb. 3, 2018 — the date the Tigers played a home game against Vanderbilt. Rivals.com writer Dan McDonald retweeted the picture and wrote, “Auburn had the whole AOT squad on campus tonight, including 4-star commit Babatunde Akingbola, 5-star 2019 wing Isaac Okoro, 5-star 2020 PG Sharife Cooper and 4-star 2019 wing Charles Smith.”

Akingbola committed to Auburn on Jan. 11, 2018, in the middle of the recruiting ban. While it’s possible that he did so completely within a vacuum, with no communication with the Auburn staff, it would be unusual. Pearl retweeted Akingbola’s commitment announcement.

Then someone found a tweet from AAU insider Julius Kim saying that prospects Josh Nickelberry and Jaylin Williams were going to visit Auburn on March 3, 2018, when the Tigers were playing South Carolina to close the regular season. There is no confirmation that Nickelberry — who wound up signing with Louisville — made the trip. However, 247 Sports’ timeline of Williams’ recruitment says that he did take an unofficial visit to Auburn on that date. Williams signed with Auburn.

Auburn Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl reacts after a foul call during the Final Four. (Photo credit: USAT)

Yahoo Sports also was made aware of an Oct. 28, 2017, Rivals.com story by McDonald updating the recruitment of Sharife Cooper. The story included this quote from the Athletes of Tomorrow player regarding Auburn: “I love it. I love the coaching staff and what they are doing. I love everything about Auburn. Coach Pearl was here last night [Tuesday].” The Tuesday closest to that story publication was Oct. 24, nearly a month after Person was arrested, and Cooper said Pearl was on the road evaluating him.

Recruiting ban?

Pearl did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment Sunday. Prior to that, Yahoo Sports sought clarification from Auburn on Thursday morning. Friday afternoon, an athletic spokesman provided a statement: “Auburn took a proactive approach by self-imposing recruiting restrictions that limited unofficial visits, official visits, contacts, evaluations and phone calls.”

The key word there is “limited,” which is less absolute than “prohibited.” Spokesman Kirk Sampson explained to Yahoo Sports the same thing he told AL.com after the Athletes of Tomorrow team photo popped up: An exception was made to accommodate that visit because it had been scheduled before Person’s arrest.

Perhaps that’s the case, but it also would be highly unusual for an AAU team’s unofficial visit to be scheduled four-plus months ahead of time. Especially given the proximity of said AAU team to the school. Powder Springs, Georgia, where Athletes of Tomorrow is based, is located about two hours from the Auburn campus — an easy drive, not a flight that would have been booked months in advance.

Athletes of Tomorrow coach Omar Cooper, the father of Sharife Cooper, made no mention of the visit being planned months in advance when reached by Yahoo Sports. “Just because we were on their campus, that doesn’t mean they asked us to come. I can’t recall way back then. I don’t need permission to get in my car and go somewhere.”

Had Auburn taken its recruiting ban seriously, it had the option to cancel the team’s visit or — if the visit were solely an Athletes of Tomorrow initiative — to decline the overture. It chose not to, and in fact welcomed the team in behind the scenes. This is an AAU outfit that was clearly central to Pearl’s recruiting, and that appears to have taken precedence.

Remember, hiring Pearl was controversial enough in its own right. After the firing at Tennessee, he was hit with a three-year show cause penalty by the NCAA. That didn’t deter Auburn from bringing him onboard in 2015. The on-court result of that hire has been unprecedented success: The Tigers won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title in 2018, won the league tournament in 2019 and then advanced to the first Final Four in program history before falling in a controversial, last-second finish to eventual national champion Virginia.

But the Person bombshell brought the Tennessee skeletons back out of the closet. And then Pearl refused for months to sit down for a formal interview with Auburn investigators — an act that led many to question why the school didn’t fire him on the spot. Instead, the school wound up giving him a contract extension in June 2018, and a new five-year deal in April 2019.

While sparing (and ultimately rewarding) the head coach, the school took other punitive steps. In addition to firing Person, who accepted $91,000 in bribes in exchange for trying to steer players to an aspiring agent and financial adviser, Auburn suspended two players for the entire 2017-18 season, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. (Purifoy also was withheld for an additional nine games during the 2018-19 season.) Staffers Jordan VerHulst and Frankie Sullivan were suspended not long after Person’s arrest and never returned, for reasons that the school has never publicly explained.

But those proactive moves by the school may now be counterbalanced by another proactive move that does not appear to have been fully implemented. In fact, it might have been outright flouted on occasion, or at least maneuvered around at a time when compliance would seemingly be paramount.

This potential new grist for the NCAA investigative mill could take time to sift through, delaying and possibly strengthening the anticipated Notice of Allegations. All the Tigers can do is sit and wait. Situational ethics have long been an Auburn hallmark, and it might end up biting an oft-penalized school again.

More from Yahoo Sports: