March 19, 2015
Bruce Pearl says Auburn has the foundation to build a better program
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- He celebrated his one-year anniversary by working early in the morning and into the night.
Bruce Pearl didn't take a day off Wednesday. He had meetings with his players. And he was back at work Thursday, on the recruiting trail, to officially start his second year as Auburn's basketball coach. He'll be on ESPN discussing the NCAA Tournament Friday through Sunday, and maybe winning some words of praise for his first year at Auburn.
All of that, in one week, is Bruce Pearl. Coach. Recruiter. A man who can sell Auburn basketball.
Pearl, who breathed life in a basketball program that so needed his energy and passion, says he didn't win as many conference games as he expected, but is proud of what Auburn accomplished off the court and in laying the foundation for the better days he sees ahead.
"It seems like I've been here longer than a year because we've done a lot, and there's a lot to be done," he said on his anniversary. "I guess the other reason why it feels that way because I feel this is home, and I've made a lot of friends and really good relationships that it usually takes more than a year to make."
Auburn had a 15-20 record in Pearl's first year, but found momentum at the end, winning three games as an underdog in last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament before falling to mighty Kentucky in the semifinals. It was the first time Auburn had won three SEC Tournament games since 1985, and only the second time to ever do it.
But it wasn't a finish. It was part of the start, Pearl says.
"We're ahead in many ways off the floor, in the development of our program and the marketing and season ticket sales," he said.
It was Bruce Pearl's first losing season in 20 years as a coach and only the second time he hasn't taken a team to post-season play. But in building a program and relationships, it was a success, said Jay Jacobs, Director of Athletics.
"He is a great basketball coach, but the greatness of Bruce isn't measured by wins and losses. It's measured by how much his players love him, how much he loves them. It's measured by how generous he is to the Auburn family. And it's measured of how appreciative he is to be at Auburn," Jacobs said.
"He has resuscitated men's basketball at Auburn. It was something nobody has been able to do in a long time. We are now relevant and all it's going to do is get better. There's not enough time in the day to get done everything he wants to get done."
Pearl had done plenty as a college coach. He knew the SEC from his days as Tennessee's coach. But he was dismissed from Tennessee because of NCAA infractions and was working at ESPN full time when Jacobs approached him about coming to Auburn.
"I sat in the hotel room a little over a year ago I knew he was the right man for Auburn," Jacobs said. "The challenge was convincing him that it was time for him to get back into coaching. He wasn't ready to. But what a blessing that he did. There's not a better fit, not a better ambassador, not a better Auburn man to coach Auburn basketball than Bruce Pearl."
Pearl couldn't recruit initially while still serving the NCAA restrictions placed on him from his days at Tennessee. He can now, hoping his coaching ability, his resume and his people skills will attract more players. Auburn is losing the SEC's top scorer in KT Harrell and the team's second-leading scorer in Antoine Mason. Gone, also, are K.C.-Ross Miller and Malcom Canada.
"Just like he appreciates us, we appreciate him. We love him. 'Love you, BP,'" Canada said after his final game.
It was an injury-plagued season, and one of grief when Mason's father died Feb. 28. Pearl stayed on a steady course.
Now, there's promise in recruiting, and in newcomer Kareem Canty, who had to sit out this season.
Pearl said he was surprised Auburn didn't win more than four games during the conference regular season. "But I think a lot of that had to do with the quality of the league.
"That's something probably that I wasn't anticipating. Top to bottom, it was better than when I left it."
But Auburn found a way to win in the SEC Tournament.
"In the post-season, we had more success than anybody was expecting. To have our players and fans experience that success was a positive," Pearl said. "The reason we were able to experience it is neither the fan base nor the players quit.
"The seniors feel like they made history. The returning players return knowing that it works. For everybody else, it does send a message we're relevant in the SEC."
Pearl worked at it, from appearing at Auburn clubs, hanging out with students on campus, doing his time in a dunking booth. The fans responded, even filling Auburn Arena the last home game in the midst of a losing streak. It was that way most of the season.
"I think it sent the message to our players that the fans they appreciated more than just the end result," Pearl said. "They appreciated the effort and the hustle and recognized we're in this together, and that we were short-handed. At the same time, we really weren't able to provide much on the investment until the end."
Pearl doesn't have time for much reflection. He's working. But he does say he made the right decision to return to coaching.
"It wasn't just being back in coaching, but being back in coaching at a place like Auburn, a place I feel really comfortable and where people have accepted me and my family and appreciate what we're trying to do," Pearl said. "That's the biggest thing."
Twitter on that day...
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: