Wiedmer: SEC better with Bruce Pearl in it

Wiedmer: SEC better with Bruce Pearl in it

March 19th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Auburn's new men's basketball coach, Bruce Pearl, waves to fans upon his arrival Tuesday at Auburn University Regional Airport in Auburn, Ala.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Happy belated birthday, Bruce Almighty. Or should that now be Bruce Au-mighty? Either way, welcome back to the Southeastern Conference. The league obviously has missed you, just in case you hadn't noticed those paltry three NCAA bids it's received each of the last two years.

In truth, Tuesday's news that Auburn chose former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl on the occasion of his 54th birthday to revive its dead program walking wasn't quite as surprising as Pearl accepting that gargantuan challenge. Turning around the U.S. Postal Service might be easier.

But after his embarrassing exit from Volsville for lying to NCAA investigators about a barbecue for recruits, of all things, Pearl was apparently ready to take the first job that came with a seven-figure annual salary. Especially if it also carried a Southern zip code, something the Massachusetts native has never been shy about professing his love for after all those early years shoveling snow.

So give Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs big credit for having the guts to ignore the irony of a school with seven major NCAA sanctions in its history reaching out to a guy who's still under a show-cause order from the NCAA until August.

Yes, it might blow up in Auburn's face. But with the Tigers having now missed the last 11 NCAA tournaments -- currently the SEC's longest such drought -- it's also an example of desperate times demanding desperate measures. Pearl had Tennessee in the Big Dance each of his six seasons in Knoxville. Auburn has endured five consecutive losing seasons within an increasingly mediocre SEC.

Given that, Jacobs almost had no choice.

It's also not like Pearl's just an OK coach. When it comes to manipulating those X's and O's to make the best use of his Jimmys and Jamals, he has almost no equal. For proof, merely consider this: In four games against Florida's back-to-back NCAA championship squads in 2006 and 2007, Pearl's Volunteers won three times.

In fact, until his final season at Tennessee, when his NCAA issues and subsequent eight-game league suspension torpedoed whatever chance the Big Orange had for a big year, Pearl beat the Gators eight times in 10 tries. Given that most consider UF's Billy Donovan the SEC's current gold standard for coaches, that's all one needs to appreciate Pearl's skill set.

But just in case you need another example, when Lady Vols legend Pat Summitt needed an extra out-of-bounds play or two, she went to Bruce Au-mighty for advice.

There should be concerns, of course, beginning with his ability to run a squeaky clean program. Three years is also a long time to be out of the game, even if Pearl has spent the last two as a razor-sharp ESPN analyst. Then again, Larry Brown -- arguably the nation's best basketball coach not named Krzyzewski -- didn't pace a single college sideline for 24 years yet deserved to have his second SMU team in the NCAA tourney this season.

And if Tuesday's arrival in Auburn was any indication, Pearl certainly hasn't lost his flair for the dramatic. Though he thankfully shunned orange and blue body paint for a dark gray suit, white shirt and orange and blue rep tie, the coach charmingly dove into a crowd of more than 100 fans, a mosh-pit moment if ever there was one, then brilliantly proclaimed, "I want this same reception when we come back with an SEC championship."

At times like that, you wonder who was more upset back in his soon-to-be former town of Knoxville -- the folks at wholesaler H.T. Hackney who made Pearl a vice-president of marketing after his UT career ended, or those 36,069 UT fans who'd signed an online petition to "Bring Back Bruce."

Nor does this do anything to bring a more relaxed sleep to Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin or Alabama coach Anthony Grant. Both work in front of restless fan bases these days, and should Pearl post wins over either man next season, those fans will howl to the heavens that their administrations should have hired (or rehired in Tennessee's case) him first.

Anyone close to UT's situation and administration knows that never was going to happen. But with Grant on rapidly thinning ice in the Heart of Dixie, Pearl's arrival dramatically ratchets up the need for a quick turnaround for a Tide program that's reached the NCAA tourney only once in his five years on the job and lost its first game when it got there.

Yet for the SEC in general, it's a much-needed energy boost. Pearl is a natural-born thriller, that rare entertainer who excites the casual fan as much as the zealot. The league was better for having him in it during his six years at UT, and it should reap similar benefits as he brings instant credibility to Auburn.

"I'm humbled and blessed to be back in the game that I love," Pearl said in a released statement. "I don't know how long it will take, but it's time to rebuild the Auburn basketball program and bring it to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy."

A humbled SEC is equally blessed to have him back if he has truly learned from his past mistakes. Everyone deserves a second chance. And much like his early years with the Big Orange, it should be great fun watching Pearl attempt to make a program that's been all wrong for so long once more Au-right.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.