It's been clear for a while, for probably more than a year, that some school in need of a basketball coach would hire Bruce Pearl in March 2014. So, with that in mind, I called Pearl last August, on the two-year anniversary of his three-year NCAA-issued show-cause penalty, and we talked about what he'd done at Tennessee, and what he planned to do next.
I asked Pearl what type of job would interest him.
Here's what he said:
"It's going to need to be somebody that has the vision that Tennessee had. Tennessee had a vision to try to get its men's basketball program to the level of its football program and where Pat Summitt had the women's basketball program. That was Tennessee's vision. They said, 'We're winning in everything else. We want to do it in men's basketball, too.' So that would be the job I'd want -- a job where somebody has that vision. It would almost need to be a school that's won a national championship in football or baseball. Somebody who's done it and wants to try to do it again in men's basketball. And I'm not saying I can win a national championship. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying it would need to be somebody who wants to try to do those things. Let's upgrade the facilities and schedule [national opponents] and engage the fans and be relevant. Just be relevant. That's what we did at Tennessee. I wanted Tennessee to matter to Kentucky fans. I wanted Tennessee to be a game Kentucky fans circled. We did that. And that's the kind of thing I would like to try to do again."
So you could see this coming, right?
Pearl was smart enough to know that an SEC school fitting that description -- perhaps Auburn, maybe Georgia, possibly Alabama -- would likely need a new coach around this time, and he was laying the groundwork, publicly sharing his vision while talking about the vision to which he would be attracted. I remember hanging up and telling some friends at dinner that Pearl would definitely be hired in March, and that the job he'd take would be a bottom-tier job in a power-conference at a so-called "football school."
In fact, I wrote exactly that eight months ago.
Here's a sentence from that column:
So my guess is a school with a strong football program and mostly irrelevant basketball program will recognize that Pearl flourished immediately under similar circumstances at Tennessee and, next March or April, try to lure him back to the coaching profession.
In other words, no, I'm not surprised Bruce Pearl is Auburn's new basketball coach.
I don't know if Auburn is perfect for Pearl.
But it's probably the best job he was going to be offered.
And, either way, what I do know is that Bruce Pearl is perfect for Auburn.
There were other nice candidates out there, of course -- and certainly ones with less baggage; Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall and Louisiana Tech's Michael White come to mind. But going that direction would've required AD Jay Jacobs to ask his fanbase to believe in a coach who has been successful in Conference USA, and that was never going to be an easy sell considering Auburn just fired a coach (Tony Barbee) who came from C-USA.
Jacobs knew that, I'm told.
Pearl is the easiest sell ever, man.
Jacobs shouldn't spend much time talking about what Pearl might be able to do at Auburn; he doesn't have to sell hope. All Jacobs needs to do is talk about what Pearl did at Tennessee -- specifically how he took over a bottom-tier SEC basketball program at a so-called "football school" and almost immediately turned it into a national power. UT fans weren't preconditioned to care about men's basketball, but Pearl made them care. The Vols aren't naturally relevant locally or nationally, but Pearl made them relevant on both levels.
He made six NCAA Tournaments in six seasons.
He earned a No. 1 national ranking.
He made the Elite Eight.
But, to me, the most impressive thing Pearl did at Tennessee is something he actually did in his first season, and that something is earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a roster so limited and flawed that it got Buzz Peterson fired the year before. Think about that for a second. Pearl essentially took the same roster that got his predecessor fired and turned it into a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That's why Auburn fans can be optimistic from the start
No, this roster Pearl is inheriting is not talented enough to win in the SEC; let's not get silly. But the roster he inherited at Tennessee wasn't talented enough, theoretically, to do much of anything, and yet it finished 12-4 in the SEC, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and things never really slowed down ... until that picture with Aaron Craft made its way to the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis.
That was the beginning of the end.
By now, you know all you need to know about that deal.
Pearl cheated. He got caught. He lied. He got caught lying. He was ultimately fired. And if you want to have a bad image of Pearl forever because of that, I suppose that's fine. Regardless, he paid a huge price, and he's mostly served his sentence. So while that'll always be a big part of the Bruce Pearl Story, we now know that it'll never be the thing that ended his career.
It merely interrupted it.
Now his career has been restarted.
Betting against Bruce Pearl would be unwise.