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Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Humbled, hungry Pearl right fit for Auburn

By Dana O'Neil


It’s about the record, because it’s always about the record.

Auburn didn’t hire Bruce Pearl because he did well in the interview or because he already has some orange in his wardrobe.

Auburn hired Pearl because everywhere he’s gone, he’s won. From the smallest of the small (Division II Southern Indiana), to the middest of the majors (Milwaukee) to the biggest of the bigs (Tennessee), Pearl’s win-loss record is an unimpeachable 462-145.

And no doubt Auburn also hired Pearl because he’s a huge get for a program that doesn’t get many huge gets. He has charm, charisma and a name that immediately legitimizes a program that has long been the illegitimate child of its behemoth football team.

Auburn typically views basketball season as the stopgap between a BCS title game and spring practice. Adding Pearl could dramatically change that seasonal timeframe.

In getting Pearl now, at this particular crossroads of his career, Auburn gets a man who is ideally suited to fix what ails the Tigers.

Bruce Pearl
Bruce Pearl had a 145-61 record at Tennessee from 2005-11.
Coaches love to break huddles with "stay humble, stay hungry."

Bruce Pearl is both humbled and hungry.

“I’m humbled," in fact, is how he began his statement included with the news of his hiring.

For Tony Barbee, Auburn was a step up the coaching ladder, a reward for winning at even-harder-to-win UTEP. Maybe things weren’t great on The Plains, but the money, the budget, the recruiting potential -- all of it was better than at El Paso. In 2010, here came a wide-eyed, new big-league coach, ready to conquer the world.

Pearl isn’t wide-eyed. He is clear-eyed. He comes to the Tigers hat in hand, happy to have the chance to coach again.

In August, the cloud of NCAA shame will be officially lifted from his name, when the show-cause penalty he earned for lying during the course of a 2011 investigation at Tennessee is over. The investigation, the accusations and the penalties shamed Pearl, which maybe wasn’t a bad thing.

No one needs public censure or ridicule, but Pearl, who tried to pretend he didn’t recognize a barbecue in his own backyard, was on the verge of becoming something plenty of successful people become: a tad too big for his own britches. Success comes easily, followed by adoration and admiration, and suddenly no one looks quite as pretty as that darned good-looking face staring back in the mirror.

Because remember, before the NCAA mess, there were the pretty girls in bikinis on the boat and the messy divorce, complete with a hair salon called Alimony's owned by his ex-wife.

If Pearl's response to his success wasn’t all wrong, it was at least a tad tacky -- a sign that the coach who had worked so hard, who had been almost publicly shunned by the coaching community after turning in Illinois to the NCAA while an Iowa assistant, had maybe lost some of his up-by-the-bootstraps ways.

To his credit -- really to his immense credit, because no one takes the blame for anything these days -- Pearl has spent his time in NCAA exile talking about what he did. He’s cautioned kids, coaches and anyone who will listen not to make the same mistakes he’s made, to always tell the truth and to own up to your mistakes.

Now Pearl re-enters the profession after a come-to-earth free fall, duly chastened, thoroughly reinvigorated and truly repentant.

And most of all, hungry to get back to work.

Auburn needs a hungry coach -- starving, actually -- because this job isn’t easy. The Tigers have eight NCAA Tournament berths in their history, five in the Sonny Smith era. The last successful run came in 2003 under Cliff Ellis. A year later, he was fired.

Pearl isn’t a magician and Auburn fans would be wise to remember that, but he is no stranger to rebuilding jobs.

Southern Indiana won 10 games before he arrived. Before he left, he had the team in the Division II national title game. Milwaukee never had won a Division I league title before Pearl. By the time he left, the Panthers had been to the Sweet 16.

And Tennessee had missed the NCAA tournament four straight years before Pearl arrived. Then, suddenly the Vols were 6-for-6 in tourney berths and, at one point, were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

That, of course, is why Auburn hired him -- the track record of success.

But the Tigers really are getting so much more.

They’re getting exactly what they need -- a coach who knows how to win, yes, but a coach who is hungry to win and humbled to have the chance to try again.