May 29, 2014
Bruce Pearl working toward his first season at Auburn
By Charles Goldberg
DESTIN, Fla. -- Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari has welcomed Bruce Pearl back to the SEC Spring Meetings with a smile.
"I try to tell him 'keep your shirt on…and no body paint.'"
Pearl's reputation as a showman and top-notch coach at Tennessee has preceded him to his new job at Auburn. Alas, Pearl says his body-painting, shirtless days are over. He's all business when it comes to his new team, but is still mixing in some humor with the thoughtful seriousness of the task at hand.
His mission: Turn around Auburn's basketball program.
Pearl isn't ducking the challenge, either. He's lining up one of the toughest schedules in years. He says finding opponents has been easy.
"Everybody wants to play Auburn, are you kidding me? Where? When? 'We’ll start a series at Auburn, would you like us?' No, there’s not been a problem."
Auburn returns two starters, a handful of reserves and newcomers, including T.J. Lang, who has enrolled and is ready to contribute. The 6-foot-7 guard from McGill-Toolen in Mobile, who was released from his scholarship at Virginia Tech after a coaching change, averaged 17 points and eight rebounds last season in high school. He'll try to help Auburn improve last season's 14-16 record. This group will be thrown into the fray quickly against good competition.
"My teams have always been high in the RPI because I just believe that’s the way you build a program, that’s where you want it," Pearl said. We’re not ready for it right now at Auburn, but we’re going to play that kind of schedule."
Pearl has been limited in rebuilding, however, because of the NCAA show-cause ruling that prevents him from recruiting until Aug. 24.
"The biggest problem with my show-cause is just my inability to deliver the message, to take advantage of the momentum of my hiring had because of our history of our success," Pearl said. "The biggest challenge from an Xs and Os standpoint is I can’t make some of these evaluation decisions myself.
"It’s not just watching them on tape, it’s watching them live, it’s watching them on the bench, it’s watching them interact, seeing what kind of courage they have, what kind of fears they have. And looking them in the eye and asking the hard questions. It’s recruiting them the right way, without promising them too much."
Pearl couldn't recruit him, but he surely signed Lang.
"I need to go back" to Auburn to meet him, Pearl said here.
"I’m committed to recruiting in the state of Alabama and the fact that he can shoot the ball from great range, and the fact that I think his best basketball’s in front of him, he’s got great size, he’s got a great body that I think is going to develop. He wanted to come home, he wanted to be at Auburn, he wanted to play for me in spite of the fact that I’ve never met him. One of the things I’m looking forward to doing when I get done with the SEC meetings is going home and meeting my freshman from Mobile, Alabama, and laying eyes on him for the first time."
Pearl, an ESPN analyst the last few years, says the new SEC Network, built by ESPN, should be plus to Auburn and the rest of the league.
"I’ve been at ESPN I can tell you that the personnel that is going to Charlotte is SportsCenter, high level, ESPN personnel," Pearl said. "They’re not putting the JV down there. They’re putting some really high-profile, really strong people that are going to run that thing. I think that’s going to be a SportsCenter in and of itself.
"The SEC competes; commissioner (Mike) Slive don’t play. He knows what the Big Ten has, he knows what the Pac-12 did, and the SEC as now got their own network – where do you think he’s going to insist that thing be? Just like he does with everything across the board: It’ll be better than anybody’s, we’ll be in more homes than anybody and that’s just how he rolls. That’s what he requires and what he demands. I have every confidence that we’ll do that."
Therefore, Pearl said, "we’ve got to give them programming."
Thus, a better non-conference schedule. Thus, Pearl wants the SEC to be strong so the league can get more than the three teams in the NCAA Tournament, which was the low number it sent last season.
"I thought Coach Calipari made a great point about having this be a player's league... Can we be a conference where kids are going to want to come in the league and play against Kentucky or against Florida or on the SEC Network? What can I do at Auburn to make our program a fun place where those kids are going to play a style of play? They’re going to play a more attractive schedule in a great environment and I’m going to let them do certain things,and yet we’re going to put it on TV.
"Bring the SEC network to my home and let see a barbeque, let them see what a barbeque looks like. Let them see me cooking. It’s allowed. Don’t you think the fans want to see that and understand is so much of what we do is beyond just the basketball, it’s about the books. Go in there and watch a coach do class checks or be in a study hall situation where there’s some academic integrity. Those are the kind of things, those stories can be told."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: