Auburn basketball has not had much to celebrate the last four years. In that time the Tigers have won a total of 18 conference games. Marred in mediocrity and irrelevance, the program hired the best coach that it could get Tuesday. Bruce Pearl, who Auburn found on its shortlist due to a lack of interest from other coaches with less baggage, was officially named Auburn’s head basketball coach despite a bevy of NCAA penalties that he will bring with him to the Tigers’ program.
In September of 2010, Pearl, while coaching the Tennessee Volunteers, admitted to violating the NCAA’s recruiting policy in his pursuit of then high school junior Aaron Craft. He also admitted to willfully covering up the antics since 2008. The gaffe cost Pearl his beloved Volunteer head coaching gig and also saddled him with sanctions that will stay with him until September of this year.
As Auburn’s coach, Pearl will not be allowed to recruit throughout the spring and summer, in fact, he cannot have any contact at all with potential recruits. Pearl, however, will still be able to evaluate talent for the Tigers. He is replacing the fired Tony Barbee, whose program finished 14-16 this season including a 6-12 record in the SEC. In four seasons with Auburn, Barbee accumulated a 49-75 record.
Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs said that he is ecstatic to have the opportunity to bring on a coach that is the caliber of Pearl. He says that the hire signifies a raising of the bar for the Tigers’ program, which routinely takes a back seat to the much more successful football program. In Pearl, Jacobs and the Auburn program found a coach that had a history of winning, something that its predecessors clearly did not possess.
“…It was clear to me that [Coach Pearl] is the right man at the right time for Auburn,” Jacobs said. “[He] is a proven winner that will bring energy and excitement to our program…I know he agrees with me – it’s time to win [at Auburn].
Winning is one thing that Pearl has done well at every coaching stop that he has been at. His first head coaching stint was with Division II Southern Indiana, where he garnered a record of 231-46. From there he went to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, his first Division I opportunity. He compiled 86 wins in four seasons with the Panthers, leading them to their first NCAA tournament appearances in 2003 and 2005. The 2005 appearance saw the Panthers make it all the way to the Sweet 16.
When Pearl took over for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2005, all he did there was lead them to six successive NCAA tournament appearances, help the program achieve its first ever No. 1 ranking and give the Volunteers their first outright regular season Southeastern Conference title in 41 years. In his six tournament appearances, Pearl also led Tennessee to three Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight.
Rebuilding the Auburn basketball program will take time. The 14-16 Tigers will lose three of their top five scorers next season, and there is no telling what kind of ramifications Pearl’s recruiting sanctions will have on the first class that he puts together.
“I don’t know how long it will take,” Pearl said. “But it is time to…bring [the Auburn basketball program] to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy.”
Pearl, who worked as a television analyst for ESPN for two seasons following his dismissal from Tennessee, has the name recognition, energy and passion that is needed to turn the Auburn program around. It may not happen next season or the one to follow, but with Pearl, Auburn found a leader that its fan base can put their hope in.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika