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Athlon Sports sat down with Bruce Pearl to discuss his return, Auburn's potential and his challenges
On Saturday, the state of Alabama will celebrate perhaps its favorite sport second only to college football — spring football. Even on A-Day at Auburn, the Tigers have reason for optimism beyond the team that reached the BCS Championship Game in January.
Auburn basketball made the biggest splash, so far, in the 2014 coaching carousel by hiring Bruce Pearl after his three-year exile from college sports. The former Tennessee coach brings to Auburn what it has lacked for a decade in college basketball — an established coach and a sorely needed injection of excitement for a program with new facilities and renewed commitment to competing in the SEC.
The hire isn’t without questions, though. Pearl was fired at Tennessee after he admitted to lying to NCAA investigators regarding recruiting violations. The penalties will continue to hamper him early in his tenure at Auburn.
Athlon Sports’ Braden Gall sat down with Pearl to discuss:
• Pearl’s return to college coaching: “It's just me being myself and not having a very high 'edit button,' if you will. We need to engage our students on a college campus.”
• His challenges at Auburn with his NCAA show-cause penalty: “Last weekend, we had an official visitor on campus. I left town just because at this time I've got to be really careful and really diligent about being compliant with my show-cause.”
• His thoughts on Cuonzo Martin’s departure from Tennessee to Cal: “I wish him nothing but success at Cal and if he wasn't happy there and he didn't feel appreciated there, then I'm glad he's not there because I want somebody there that wants to be there.”
[Disclosure: Gall hosts college basketball programming on SiriusXM where Pearl was his co-host periodically during the last three years.]
Athlon Sports: While you were out of coaching, you were an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM. Is there anything you learned from the other side with your time in the media that can help you in coaching?
Bruce Pearl: No, because I've always been very accessible to the media, so that's not been an issue. People say when you watch practices and you watch basketball, that when you get back into coaching it helped them. But for me all I saw was everybody running the same offenses, everybody running the same defenses and everybody guarding the ball screens the exact same way, and I just know that's not how I want to coach. I've always run different systems and tried to be a little unique. That's one thing I know I won't do; Our team won't look like everybody else's.
Athlon: You are already up to your old tricks with the dunk tank, gaining publicity for your program. How does your personality and energy level set you apart from a lot of other coaches?
Pearl: When I left Dr. Tom Davis after being with him at Boston College, Stanford and Iowa, and it was time for me to go become a head coach. He told me, “Look, do what we do. This is what you know and how to teach and as long as you stay with this and make it your own, you will be successful.” And he was right. But he (also) said, "don't try to be me. Be yourself because you can duplicate that." So whether it's tricks or being out there in the community or having our student-athletes being involved in different things, being out there, truly, it's just me being myself and not having a very high “edit button” if you will. We need to engage our students on a college campus. We need to be involved in the things that they are involved in. What they are doing has got to be important to us because I need them to come to our basketball games to create a homecourt advantage where we can be be successful. And I can't ask them to serve me if I'm not willing, in some ways, to serve them.
Athlon: You were a big part of the changes that took place at Thompson-Boling Arena during your time at Tennessee, making the arena smaller and more intimate, giving the fans a better experience. What do you have to work with at Auburn?
Pearl: It's one of the nicest facilities in the country — 9,100 seats and not a bad seat in the house. The students are right down on the floor. It looks like it was built yesterday, but it's a few years old. They take unbelievable care of it, and it was done so right. The offices are all here. Two practice facilities are here. The weight room is right off the practice facility. The locker rooms are incredible. I think what Auburn understands is how to treat student-athletes. This is a college town, a college campus, and there's not a ton to do here. There's not a lot of distractions, so therefore, if you are really serious about your books and your basketball, this is a great place, and they will love you to death. That might not be for everybody. They might want a bigger city, might want more clubs and more places to go and more things to do. And that's fine. But if you want to come train and you want to become great, this is a great spot.
Athlon: You talk about the community, the student-athletes and the Auburn family. Obviously, there's a spring game coming up this weekend for the football team, do you have any special plans to get the basketball program involved in the big celebration?
Pearl: Not at the spring game. My coaching staff and our families are going to go over to Coach (Gus) Malzahn's house. He's got a gathering on Friday night and then on Saturday morning, I'm going to attempt to ride 22 miles with Bo Jackson and his crew. They bike around town, and so I'm going to get involved in that.
Athlon: Bo could probably still play, I imagine?
"I wish (Cuonzo Martin) nothing but success at Cal and if he wasn't happy there and he didn't feel appreciated there, then I'm glad he's not there because I want somebody there that wants to be there."
Athlon: It certainly creates some unique challenges heading into your first season. You are here, you're the head coach, but there are certain things you cannot do.
Pearl: When you first take over a program, there are a couple of things you need to do. Number one, you got to work with the players that are returning, and hopefully the guys will look different with the way we are trying to condition them. That's the first goal. That's not a guarantee, but that's what we strive for. The second thing you have to do when you take over is re-work the roster and try to rebuild the roster a little bit. That's something I can't do from a standpoint of evaluating talent or talking to prospects and communicating with them right now. So our record has to speak for itself. This place has to sell itself. My assistant coaches have got to be the ones who are out there communicating. It will be a challenge, but when we win, it will make it all the more gratifying.
Athlon: You are a Northeast guy but you have come back to the SEC. What are some of the challenges with returning to a "football school?”
Pearl: First of all, if you don't have a product to sell you're not going sell much of that product. So right now I'm selling Auburn football. Right now, I'm selling Auburn's fast and no-huddle and everything that Coach Malzahn is doing. I'm selling the other programs, both men and women, how successful they are. But you're right. Football is the bottom line and people are excited about it. Auburn hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in 10 years, and I've been there 17 times in the last 19 years. I don't know how quickly we will get it turned around, but we will get it turned around.
Athlon: What kind of style are we going to see from you? Similar stuff from what we've seen from you in the past or will there be some new wrinkles or tweaks you've developed?
Pearl: There are always tweaks every year based on your personnel, but we are going to play fast. We're going to attack in transition. We're going to try to turn people over with our defense. And based on our personnel, and what they're strengths and weaknesses are — something I won't know until the fall — then we will adjust accordingly. But you can't change your system. It is what it is. And we'll plug that in. How fast we make you go, how much we extend the floor will depend on the talent and the depth of the roster.
Athlon: Auburn will lose a couple of really big scorers and that has to be at the top of the list of needs that you need to address.
Pearl: Even in a public setting, when I'm talking about our players, I really can't even talk about our needs and what we need to address because it would sort of be like a form of recruiting. But, yeah, we lost three seniors who played a lot of basketball and scored a lot of points. And so obviously those guys need to be replaced, and there's opportunity. You've got to build a strong foundation, you can't be in a rush. One of the things you do is be patient. Make sure you take guys that can get you to where you need to be in order to be competitive in the upper division of the SEC. That's what our goal is.
Athlon: You've been very open in talking about your experience over the last three years from an emotional and personal level, what have you learned and how have you grown?
Pearl: First of all, the way to handle what we did is to be accountable for it. Apologize for it and ask for their forgiveness and grace but obviously to move forward as well. This isn't a story about sin, this is a story about redemption. I became the vice president of a $4 billion company, the HT Hackey Company, not many guys can say that they did that and I was able to do it. God put it in front of me and I took advantage of it, and I was blessed for that. And then to work with SiriusXM and ESPN. Just keep moving forward. And now to be back in college basketball again, understanding that I was a coach for 33 years, a head coach for 19 years and almost all of them were really good. We run clean programs and I don't mind saying that to anyone. Look them right in the eye and say we run a clean program. We made some mistakes and we paid dearly for it but it is a story about redemption and I am blessed and humbled to have the opportunity to be here at Auburn.
Athlon: I know games are a long way off and the show-cause still has some time to go, but it seems like you're having some fun.
Pearl: It's great to be back. It's a great town and I think my family is going to be really happy here. I am assembling a great staff. Tony Jones, my right-hand man, came with me. Steven Pearl, my son, who played for me, is going to be coaching with me. Todd Golden, who played for me in Israel and played at Saint Mary's for Randy Bennett, (is here). Chuck Person, the Rifleman, has returned to the Plains. I couldn't have hired a better guy to recruit this part of the country. He's been here and done that and believes in this place. He knows what Auburn basketball is supposed to look like. We are not going to settle. We are putting a great group together, and I'm pretty excited about the challenge. We got a lot a work to do now because we are way, way behind a lot of the other clubs in this league, but we will catch up.
Athlon: As far as the SEC as a whole, it took its lumps in the regular season last year, but in the NCAA Tournament things were very different with Florida and Kentucky making it to the Final Four.
Pearl: And Tennessee getting to the Sweet 16 and almost beating Michigan to get to the Elite Eight. I think that there were some definite misconceptions. The one thing the SEC has to be accountable for is we did not do our work in November and December in the nonconference. And that's been the case for the last several years, and as a result, we set ourselves behind the other conferences. I don't know with Kentucky being such a young team early in the year, you couldn't really expect them to do what they did but they had some losses — to Baylor, who actually turned out to be a pretty good team. Florida did everything they could early in the year. They were injured, and Billy Donovan did an amazing job this year and could have been national coach of the year with his injuries and suspensions and things early in the year. The only two teams they lost to were UConn and Wisconsin, two teams in the Final Four. Just an incredible job. Tennessee had a disappointing regular season, and they should have carried the banner a little bit better. Look at how they played late in the year. There are a few other clubs that were capable that didn't get enough done in the preseason. Once that happens, you’ll see way more than three teams in the NCAA Tournament from the SEC, and I think the success Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee had in the Tournament will sit on the committee's mind as related to maybe the league being better than what they got credit for.
Athlon: What were your thoughts when you saw the news that Cuonzo Martin went to Cal?
Pearl: I wasn't surprised. I wasn't. Cuonzo didn't seem to be happy there. I know they talked about the fact that he had to overcome following me, and I understand that we had success, but they still had 18,000 people come to every single game. Overcome that or not, they got great support in Knoxville, great facilities, great university. The embracing needs to work both ways, so I'm happy for Coach Martin. He maintained a level of success that we worked really hard to create. I'm grateful to Coach Martin as a former Tennessee head basketball coach, and a Vol for life, I'm grateful for the job he did because he kept it going. I wish him nothing but success at Cal, and if he wasn't happy there and he didn't feel appreciated there, then I'm glad he's not there because I want somebody there that wants to be there. So I appreciate the job he did and I'm happy for him and his family that they got a chance to move on.