For Auburn, Bruce Pearl Was Well Worth the Gamble

Posted by David Changas on April 5th, 2019

Fifteen years between NCAA Tournament appearances. Sixteen years between Sweet Sixteen trips. One prior Elite Eight visit. One coach hired off the scrap heap following a three-year show cause penalty. The specter of an FBI investigation. Prior to its magical run to the Final Four, those things were just about all anyone knew or needed to know about Auburn’s rather nondescript history as a basketball program.

Bruce Pearl has taken the Auburn program to heights it has not seen before (

Of course, none of that encapsulates just how bad the program was when the controversial Bruce Pearl was hired by former athletics director Jay Jacobs in the spring of 2014. Tony Barbee, previous and subsequent to the gig a John Calipari disciple, oversaw four years of putrid results that included a total of 18 SEC wins, no postseason appearances, and a fan base beyond apathetic. With Pearl coming off the show cause that led to his unceremonious departure from Tennessee in 2011, Jacobs wisely decided that there was no reason to not take a chance on a coach who had made the Volunteers relevant again in the middle of the prior decade. While Pearl’s tumultuous history made the hire anything but a sure thing – and who knows where it really will go from here – what real risk was there to hiring someone who had proved himself a winner, taking two programs to the Sweet Sixteen and Tennessee to its only Elite Eight in program history? When 9,121-seat capacity Auburn Arena was seeing average crowds of less than 6,000 patrons per game, what did Jacobs have to lose by tying himself to the bombastic Pearl — a man who is perhaps equal parts basketball coach and circus act?

Jacobs’ gamble obviously worked, probably to an even greater degree than he could have ever envisioned. It did not pay immediate dividends like it did at Tennessee — Pearl made the NCAA Tournament in each of his six seasons in Knoxville — but in year five, the Tigers, which spent much of the regular season underachieving before finishing on a 12-game winning streak, have unexpectedly reached the final weekend of college basketball. And that pinnacle already includes scalps from the likes of Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, in succession.

Just 18 months ago, as Pearl sat in front of the media throng gathered for the SEC Tipoff media day in Nashville, he looked like a coach who was on his last legs. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy had been implicated in the recent FBI investigation –- both ended up missing the entire 2017-18 season – and now-former assistant and Auburn legend Chuck Person, was right in the middle of it (he later pleaded guilty to conspiracy related to the scandal). The odds of Pearl no longer coaching Auburn in two Aprils seemed much greater at the time than those of him taking his team to Minneapolis for college basketball’s biggest weekend. Though Pearl was able to circle the wagons with last season’s squad enough to win the SEC regular season championship, that team faded down the stretch before getting humiliated by Clemson in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. And despite the Tigers bringing back a talented roster led by senior guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, much of this season felt similar. In late February, Auburn lost to Kentucky, 80-53, in an absolute beatdown of a game that ultimately became the turning point for Pearl’s team. The Tigers haven’t lost since.

In true Pearl fashion, Auburn shoots loads of three-pointers (43.4 percent of their points come from outside the arc, seventh-most in the nation), and makes many of them (38.3 percent, good for 15th nationally). They also turn their opponents over on nearly a quarter of their positions, a metric in which which the Tigers lead the country. But Pearl’s style has changed since his days at Milwaukee and Tennessee, when he was known for the “controlled chaos” brand of basketball he learned from Dr. Tom Davis at Iowa. Now, his teams don’t rely on the full-court press as much as they did at his first two Division I stops. “The rule changes over the last couple years have really put a limit on full-court pressure, made trapping difficult,” Pearl said after his team won the SEC Tournament title over his former school, Tennessee.

Former coach Tony Barbee’s tweet after Auburn was blown out by Clemson in the 2018 NCAA Tournament has not held up well.

There is no question that Pearl’s adjustment to playing more in the half-court was a wise one. More than that, it shows that the head coach, who spent much of his three-year sabbatical traveling the country, watching numerous teams practice and talking to coaches, continued growing and learning during the time away from the sidelines.

Whether Pearl can pull off the impossible and win the national title, especially without arguably his best all-around player, Chuma Okeke, remains to be seen. But what we do know is that, no matter what happens from here, a program that had not registered even in the landscape of the SEC for at least 15 years, is now relevant at the sport’s most important time. Because of that, it is clear that Pearl was the right man for the Auburn job, and the gamble Jacobs took five years ago has already paid off in spades.

David Changas (166 Posts)

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