March 18, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. – It was a combination pep rally and press conference, and it was unprecedented in the history of Auburn basketball. Auburn people have been excited about basketball before – in the championship season of 1999, in the Sonny Smith’s halcyon days in the 1980s. But Tuesday night was different.
Make a note of March 18, 2014. It was the day Bruce Pearl became Auburn’s head basketball coach, and it just might have been the day Auburn basketball changed forever. Pearl has proved himself a big winner at the highest level of college basketball. He is a coach who can teach and scheme with the best of them, and he is a showman and salesman supreme.
It was a little after 7, when Pearl strode onto the Auburn Arena floor to a loud roar from the fans who had gathered to welcome him on his 54th birthday. He turned and bowed as the band played the Auburn fight song.
After Pearl posed with athletics director Jay Jacobs, it was time to talk. And he wasn’t shy. “War Eagle!” he yelled. “It feels so good! And welcome to the jungle!”
As Pearl’s voice rose to a crescendo again and again, I thought back to almost four years ago. In the same arena, when Tony Barbee was introduced as head coach, he awkwardly talked about Auburn traditions that he didn’t really understand and probably had not heard of until hours earlier.
There was nothing awkward about Pearl’s words, even when he addressed the NCAA issues that eventually got him fired at Tennessee. He talked about the pain he and his family felt and about the regret. But mostly Pearl, the salesman, stirred up the crowd like a country preacher at a tent revival.
Gus Malzahn, the football coach who turned a dispirited program into a champion in a matter of months, was there. So was Smith, who took Auburn to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s and an Elite 8. Chuck Person, who played for Smith and became the most prolific scorer in Auburn history, and Joe Ciampi, who made took Auburn women’s basketball teams to three consecutive national championships, were there, too.
Jacobs, the athletics director who went and got Pearl, stood by, smiling and proud.
After Barbee was fired last Wednesday, Jacobs soon targeted Pearl. Jacobs became convinced that what happened at Tennessee was a mistake and not a character flaw. Dave Didion, Auburn’s assistant director of compliance who, as NCAA enforcement director, oversaw the investigation that brought Pearl down, told Jacobs he would hire Pearl in a heartbeat. SEC commissioner Mike Slive signed off on it, too.
“I said ‘You know what? This is a guy that deserves a second chance,’” Jacobs said. “This is a guy that can win. If anybody will embrace somebody for a mistake they’ve made, the Auburn family will. It’s obvious by today’s turnout they are. We are committed to winning championships. We are going to do it the right way, and I’m glad he’s here.”
Jacobs, like so many Auburn people, was stung when all of Auburn’s major sports hit on hard times. He took withering criticism, and he doesn’t deny that criticism hurt. After five big-time hires – Gus Malzahn in football, Sunny Golloway in baseball, Clint Myers in softball, Terri Williams-Flournoy in women’s basketball and Pearl – there is scarcely a discouraging word to be heard.
“I’m committed to winning,” Jacobs said. “I’m not going to take no for an answer. The university is committed to winning. The administration has given me the latitude to go out and do what we need to do from a financial resource standpoint. This is no longer a place you come in and cut your teeth.”
Once Jacobs decided Pearl was his man, he went after him with determination. And in a matter of days, it was done.
Pearl sought no concessions. He was grateful for a chance at redemption. He had no complaints about shoe contracts and recruiting restrictions or even about his own show cause penalty that will keep him from going on the road recruiting until August.
Auburn, Jacobs said, will continue to be an Under Armour program top to bottom.
“They are our partners,” Jacobs said, “and we are staying with them. Bruce has won with Addidas and Nike and he’ll win with Under Armour.”
The hard work of building a program is ahead. Pearl acknowledged that, but he vowed Auburn will win championships in basketball.
And on this night, as the crowd cheered, it was easy to believe him.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: