New Faces, New Places: Bruce Pearl confronts Auburn challenge
After spending some time in the non-coaching wilderness, Bruce Pearl is back in the SEC. Gary Parrish explores Pearl's initial efforts to redeem himself, and the moribund Auburn program.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It's the Friday of a holiday weekend, a day most hate to work and some even choose not to, and yet here's Bruce Pearl, before 8 a.m., in his office making coffee and counting the days until he can operate like a normal college basketball coach again.
The adjacent arena is dark and empty.
Campus is dead.
But Pearl still has the energy to conduct a tour during which he talks about all of the things he loves about Auburn and some of the things he'd like to change, and, speaking of, where in the world is that Sports Illustrated cover featuring Chris Porter? Folks don't remember, probably. But an Auburn basketball player really was once on the cover of America's most celebrated sports magazine, and shouldn't we have stumbled into that on this walk by now?
"It should be everywhere," Pearl says.
In other words, it will be soon.
Eventually, we return to Pearl's office and chat about everything from the roster inherited to the expectations bestowed, and we spend a good bit of time discussing his decision to leave a comfortable job as a college basketball analyst at ESPN for a historically tough job as the men's basketball coach at Auburn. Why Auburn, I ask.
Pearl explains, quite simply, that Auburn has everything he needs to win.
Beyond that, though, he just wanted back in the SEC.
|Vital Info: Auburn's Bruce Pearl|
He points out that his reputation as a program-builder is strongest in this part of the country because of what he did in those six seasons at Tennessee, and the truth is that, when Auburn, opened, there was no way to intelligently predict what else might. Who knew Frank Haith would subsequently leave Missouri for Tulsa? And though there were signs that Cuonzo Martin could try to leave Tennessee for any other good job, the reality is that Pearl understood, even if thousands who signed an online petition didn't, that he'd never be rehired in Knoxville regardless of whether UT eventually had an opening or not. So when Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs flew to Bristol, Conn., less than 24 hours after firing Tony Barbee, and promised a commitment to winning combined with a contract worth $2.2 million a year, it didn't take long for Pearl to accept. He had a boss with a vision who believed in him, all the resources he desired -- "Auburn already has a top-three recruiting budget in the SEC," Pearl points out -- and an opportunity to rejoin a league where he years ago became a larger-than-life character.
"I loved the preparation at ESPN, and I liked the work, but at the end of the night I didn't know if I won or lost," Pearl says. "Before the game, you're so invested. During the game, you hope you do a good job. But then the game is over, and there's just no feeling. There's no emotion. Now some would say that's the best part -- that you go home and didn't lose. But you also didn't win, and I didn't like that part ... not having the feeling of winning and losing. So I loved the work at ESPN. But I really wanted to coach."
Thus, Pearl is coaching -- now at a school that's never made a Final Four, been to only one Elite Eight and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in each of the past 11 seasons. Put another way, again, this is a historically tough job, and it's a job that, at the moment, is tougher than it would otherwise be because, like I mentioned at the top, Pearl is still counting the days until he can operate like a normal college basketball coach again.
That day comes 80 days from now.
"August 24," Pearl answers when I ask for a reminder of when his show-cause penalty expires, and it's not a coincidence that Auburn's first "Elite Camp" for high school prospects starts that morning. Because between now and then, for the next 80 days, Pearl isn't allowed to communicate with prospects. Or parents of prospects. Or coaches of prospects.
His hands and tongue and everything else are tied.
Predictably, it's made for some pretty awkward situations.
Pearl has gone from the coach who got in trouble at Tennessee for inappropriately hosting prospects at his glamorous home to the coach who can't host or communicate with prospects at all, and the byproduct of that reality has him sometimes going as far as to leave the state of Alabama entirely when recruits visit campus, either officially or unofficially.
"I've even gone back to Knoxville," Pearl says. "I just leave town."
When he's in town, the staff coordinates everything by cell phone, meaning Pearl will leave the offices when his assistants have a prospect in the offices, then maybe take a lunch or dinner break when his assistants are showing off the arena, locker room and weight room.
Just so we're clear, Pearl is allowed to be in the same building as prospects.
But he's uninterested in taking any chances.
Burned famously by a photograph once, Pearl doesn't want to put himself in a position where anybody with an iPhone could snap a picture of him and a recruit even if the picture might be rooted in innocence and proof of nothing. It's just not worth it. So Pearl and his staff -- a staff that includes his son, Steven Pearl, a Tennessee graduate -- have gone to great lengths to play it safer than the NCAA technically requires.
"We're on our phones all of the time," explains Todd Golden, a Saint Mary's graduate who is now Auburn's director of basketball operations. "He'll tell us, 'Call me 15 minutes before you guys head back so I can get out of here and go back to the house and work.' We're just under such a watchful eye right now, and we can't mess with it."
But do recruits still ask about Pearl and his absence?
"Every time," said Auburn icon Chuck Person, the former NBA star and assistant coach whom Pearl convinced to join his staff. "They want to speak to him every time. So we have to explain why they can't, and they always understand. But it has been a challenge."
The bigger challenge, though, comes in November.
That's when Pearl's first season in the next chapter of his coaching career gets underway, and the odds of him duplicating his first season at UT are slim, if only because the roster Buzz Peterson left in 2005 was perfectly suited for the way Pearl wanted to play, led by a future NBA guard in C.J. Watson, and good enough, under the guidance of Pearl, to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This roster isn't that roster. Regardless, a core of K.T. Harrell, New Mexico State transfer K.C. Ross Miller and junior college standout Cinmeon Bowers provides some nice building blocks, and, it should be noted, the Tigers are this weekend hosting Niagara transfer Antoine Mason, the nation's leading returning scorer. His enrollment (combined with immediately eligibility) would obviously boost expectations and give Auburn a legitimate shot to compete for a postseason berth.
"You look at what [Pearl] did at Tennessee, where they went to the NCAA Tournament in his first year, and that gives us hope," Harrell says. "And his passion just rubs off on you."
Which is why it would be silly to bet against Pearl.
No, this job isn't as good as the UT job he lost in 2011.
No, there isn't a strong tradition of winning to sell, sell, sell.
But Pearl is reentering the SEC as the third most-famous (and most-accomplished) coach behind only Florida's Billy Donovan and Kentucky's John Calipari, and he's already proven well beyond a reasonable doubt that he can compete with those two men (and basically anybody else in the sport). Will it take a year or three to get rolling? Perhaps. But there's no denying that Pearl has made the NCAA Tournament in 17 of his 19 seasons as a head coach, meaning he has a long and documented record of success.
Bottom line, the next few months will be rough.
But history suggests the next decade should be fun.
"I have confidence that history can repeat itself," Pearl says. "We did it at Southern Indiana. We did it at Milwaukee. We did it at Tennessee. And we're going to do it here, too."
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