Pearl's Redemption: On Auburn's run to the Final Four
You don’t have to like Bruce Pearl, blue-blood slayer of the Alabama Plains.
Forced to acknowledge, of course, that in leading Auburn — yes, Auburn — to successive NCAA Tournament wins over Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, the three winningest programs in college basketball history, he deserves every bit of acclaim coming to him, you still might not like him.
Some really don’t. That’s perfectly understandable.
College basketball is a messy business.
It’s a billion-dollar enterprise that offers both the best of college sports, through March Madness, and a glimpse into the worst corners of the amateurism myth, where the best recruits are often bought with sneaker deals, “strong-ass offers” and an AAU system corrupt enough to make Tony Soprano blush.
Pearl has been caught up in this complicated web for decades, exemplifying both the charm and excellence of the sport and its dark underbelly.
Pearl’s rise into the coaching ranks is part of the best of college sports, a by-the-bootstraps Cinderella story. Pearl’s high school basketball career ended before it started, thanks to a lingering football injury. At Boston College, he begged his way into a student manager role under Dr. Tom Davis, and later parlayed that into spots on Davis’ staffs at Stanford and later Iowa.
Kevin Mackey, an assistant on Davis’ staff at Boston College, remembered a relentless worker and true student of the game. Pearl has always been as relentless a worker as the hard ball pressure defenses he coaches.
As an assistant at Iowa, Pearl was front and center in an investigation related to the recruitment of Chicago prep standout Deon Thomas recruiting scandal. That time, Pearl cooperated with the NCAA in an attempt to turn in rival Illinois. The NCAA ultimately enlisted Pearl to prove Illinois cheated; years later, Thomas would say it was Pearl who floated the idea of a bag of cash, which, admirably, Thomas declined, signing with the Illini instead.
Rightly or wrongly, Pearl’s role in the Thomas investigation earned him pariah status, and Pearl found himself exiled at Division II Southern Indiana. Pearl, a chameleon and survivor, made it work. His northeastern accent, passion for the game and goofy, warm personality charmed rural Hoosier state fans who rank basketball just behind family and faith. He won a Division II national championship in 1995, erasing a 30-8 first half deficit in the championship game.
Eventually, Pearl found his way out of exile and to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he built a dangerous mid-major giant killer that reached the Sweet 16 in 2005. But even there, where he won 70% of his basketball games, the NCAA swirled, with Wisconsin-Milwaukee forced to self-report a NCAA violation when Pearl invited a coveted junior recruit to his daughter’s graduation party at his home, contrary to NCAA rules barring coaches from meeting with high school juniors at off-campus sites.
Pearl weathered that mess too, and moved on to Knoxville, where in several seasons at Tennessee, he injected life into a basketball program that had laid mostly destitute and dormant since the Bernie and Ernie years.
Playing suffocating defense and exciting, frenetically paced, “shooters-shoot” green light offense, the Vols captured a regular season SEC title, found themselves ranked number one in the winter of a thirty-win season in 2008, gave the SEC’s basketball royalty (Kentucky and by then, Florida) fits and finally, came one basket from Rocky Top’s first Final Four in 2010.
Then Bruce threw a backyard barbeque for Aaron Craft, lied to the NCAA about it and was sent packing with a 3-year show cause, exiled to a sad-sounding analysts role on ESPN and Sirius XM basketball shows.
Having already succeeded in rural Indiana once, I half expected Pearl to turn all Norman Dale and end up coaching high school basketball and high-pressure ball screen defense somewhere in flyover country, a made for Netflix odd “whatever happened to” story about a banished coach, redeemed by a plucky group of underachievers.
In a way, that’s what happened.
Whatever the sordid details of Pearl’s past, former Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs hired Bruce Pearl 5 years ago hoping to lead Auburn, for ages a parochial afterthought in the sport, out of college basketball’s wilderness. Pearl had five months left on his “show cause” when hired, but to Jacobs, who had watched Tony Barbee stumble through 4 consecutive losing seasons, the juice was worth the squeeze.
You see, in the billion dollar business that is college basketball, talent trumps sordid history, so long as you say you’re sorry.
This is especially true in college basketball coaching circles, where coaches like John Calipari and Kelvin Sampson joined Pearl this year in the Sweet 16, their past sins behind them.
Pearl said he was sorry, and proceeded to build a team as relentless as his work ethic.
Like his great teams at Tennessee, this Auburn team begins with exhausting defense. The Tigers led the SEC in steals and blocks and rank first nationally in turnover percentage and fifth in block percentage.
They use their blitzing defense to overwhelm you in transition, where they convert a staggering 77% of their FG attempts off live-ball turnovers. Over 10% of Auburn’s baskets come off turnovers, and often, these aren’t layups, but exhilarating (for Auburn fans), demoralizing (for opponents) transition three pointers, which junior jitterbug Jared Harper has made a living burying this season.
The Tigers are also a veteran-laden and led group, which gives them an edge even in games against superior talent, as we saw in the Elite 8 against Kentucky.
Sometimes it’s better to be old and good than young and great, or at least this was among the central conclusions of a lengthy report on the impact of the One-and-Done rule on college basketball. Like the SEC and eventually, national championship Florida teams under Billy Donovan Pearl very much admired (and often beat), Auburn fits this bill. Chuma Okeke was the only underclassmen in the team’s rotation this season, and the Tigers might start three seniors (Horace Spencer, Brown, Dunbar) in Saturday’s Final Four game against Virginia.
The Tigers’ brilliant defense makes them surprisingly efficient on offense, where they shoot a heavy volume of 3-point shots and have as many as seven players who Pearl acknowledges have “the greenest of green lights.” Harper and senior Bryce Brown are assassins off the bounce, and it often doesn’t matter if either os guarded, as tenacious defensive outfits like Florida and Kentucky found in games this March. But Samir Doughty, Anfernee McLemore, Malik Dunbar and Danjel Purifoy all have green lights from deep, as did forward Okeke, the team’s best defender, until he was hurt in the Sweet 16 win.
It’s a tireless style that demands a great deal from players but also involves a deep amount of trust in them as well. Pearl won’t ever be out-prepared and he coaches his rear off, so much that he’s prone to sweat through a suit. But he doesn’t overcoach. He trusts his players and his players love him for it.
And he loves them back.
That love is why it was one moment, more than any during this improbable run by this indefatigable Auburn basketball team to the Final Four, that defines this second-chance version of Bruce Pearl more than all others.
When Okeke was hurt against North Carolina, it was a sobering reminder of the dangers elite amateur athletes face, playing for an education and a pizza night stipend while the NCAA rakes in billions. On arguably the greatest night in Auburn basketball history, Okeke had been the Tigers best player, pouring in a double-double and keeping a Tar Heels team that feasted all season on the glass at bay.
After the win, Pearl was interviewed by TBS’s Jamie Erdahl about what the win meant to him and Auburn and of course, Okeke. Pearl was moved to tears.
— Subjective to Sports (@STSports_) March 30, 2019
That moment is why kids want to play for Bruce Pearl. That moment, to me, swallows up the whispered reality that even as Pearl has built this Auburn behemoth, the FBI has swirled, with multiple Auburn assistants implicated- and one convicted in federal court- in the same pay-for-play scandal that threatens to take down LSU’s young starlet head coach, Will Wade.
That external stuff that’s always followed him might make you dislike Bruce Pearl. I get it.
Just don’t tell that to Okeke and Auburn. To them, and college basketball junkies like me, Pearl is redeemed. And in college basketball, Final Fours are forever.