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Auburn's Bruce Pearl sees emotional return to Tennessee
Jan. 30, 2015

Auburn's Bruce Pearl is ready for his return to Tennessee this weekend

By Charles Goldberg

AUBURN, Ala.  Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl has already warned his team. He may get a little teary-eyed when he returns to Tennessee and Thompson-Boling Arena this weekend.

Pay it no mind, he said. That's just Bruce Pearl being Bruce Pearl, and that's just Bruce Pearl returning to Tennessee, where he had success as the Volunteers' coach for six years and where his charitable work is still remembered.

He told his new team, the Auburn Tigers, not to be "troubled, concerned, or bothered" if they see him choked up.

"I can get watery. I can't control it. It just happens," he said.

"He's an emotional dude," said Steven Pearl, the coach's son who played for his dad at Tennessee and who is on his staff at Auburn. "When he starts talking about things that he loves or things he's very passionate about, he gets emotional. I can see the environment and having to walk into the place he lived in for nine years, and coached at for six, emotions will be running high. You'll definitely be able to see a difference then. 

"He made the team aware of that: 'If I'm a little teary-eyed, don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I get emotional talking about you guys and your families and your careers.' It's going to be a different situation. You'll see a little bit different in pregame, but everything else has been business as usual."

Auburn plays Tennessee at 11 a.m., Auburn time on Saturday, in Pearl's first game in Thompson-Boling since taking all six of his Volunteer teams to the NCAA Tournament, since compiling 145-61 record there, since he was let go after the 2011 season because of NCAA infractions. But Pearl didn't walk away. He lived in Knoxville for three more seasons, raising money for some of his favorite charities along the way.

Even Friday night, after Auburn's airplane touches down, he'll host a fund-raiser for his Tennessee friends to raises money for the charities he still supports in Knoxville. He raised more than $1 million in Knoxville, a lot after he had departed as Tennessee's basketball coach. He's thrown himself into charity work at Auburn, too.

His reception figures to be positive Saturday in Thompson-Boling.

"Some will be booing and some will be Bruuuuing," Pearl said. "I don't know what one it will be."

Steven Pearl said he hopes the reception will be "a great one" for what his dad did on the court, and what he did off raising money for charities that helped kids, that funded cancer research and other worthy cause.

"He did a lot of great things for the community, with the UT Medical Center and Outlive and raising all the money for Camp Koinonia," he said. "The fans were nothing but wonderful to us when everything happened.

"It will be a good reception, and you'll hear all the 'Bruuuuces' coming back out. It'll be great. I think it will be a warm reception, but once the ball goes up, they're Volunteer fans, and they'll be cheering for their team."

The Pearls came to Auburn together, know the schedule would pit them against Tennessee.

"It's crazy," said Steven Pearl, "because we saw it when the schedule when it first came out, and it seemed like it was forever, and last week, we were 'We play Tennessee next weekend.' It came out of nowhere."

Bruce Pearl says ESPN will follow him around, saying the network "is going to make a deal about my return to Knoxville." But he says he'll welcome that.

"That's good for Auburn basketball, good for the Auburn athletic program for that visibility on a Saturday afternoon," he said.

"There's going to be a lot more attention, and I wanted them to be prepared for that, and relish the opportunity to play in front of a national audience."

While Pearl said he may not be able to hold his emotions in check before the game, he'll be fine by tipoff.

"From the minute when we get in that huddle to start playing, there won't be any different emotions as it relates to coaching, as it relates to the game. My preparation prior to has been the same," he said.

But "in the moments leading up to tip," he conceded, "it will be difficult."

It'll be different for Bruce Pearl. Steven Pearl, too.

"Walking into the gym is going to be weird, walking in through a different tunnel, wearing a different color. But I'm excited," Steven Pearl said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere for college basketball. I'm excited for our team to have another great opportunity to play well on the road. It will definitely be a mixture of emotions, not being on the other side, but I'm happy to be on the side where I'm at."

Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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