Bruce Pearl and Auburn are finally back in the NCAA Tournament but storm clouds linger

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Bruce Pearl and Auburn are finally back in the NCAA Tournament but storm clouds linger

Bruce Pearl was so uptight on Tuesday in Auburn that he became impatient with reporters before they even asked him a question.

It was the final media availability for Auburn before flying across the country to San Diego, and Pearl couldn't wait to get it over with and begin practice. First, the Tigers' coach motioned for the media to gather around him as quickly as possible. Next, he spoke up when the scrum failed to immediately ask a question.

"Who wants to go first?" Pearl said.

He seemed so agitated, I had to ask him if he wanted his team playing loose or on edge Friday against College of Charleston in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"My guys are always going to be loose," Pearl said. "I'm always going to be on edge. That's the way we roll. I'm on edge in warmups, stretching, watching film. I'm the same. I'm the same for Barry as I am for NCAA Tournament games as I am for Kentucky."

Or when walking past Alabama strength and conditioning coaches apparently.

Pearl is an excitable guy, but especially these days it seems. Who can blame him? The last time he was in the NCAA Tournament he was fired the Monday after losing in the second round.

Pearl wore Tennessee-orange suspenders in that loss, a 30-point blowout to an undersized Michigan team led by Tim Hardaway Jr. Similar to Auburn's loss against Alabama in last week's SEC Tournament, Pearl's 2011 Tennessee team was badly outscored by Michigan in the second half, 42-16. When Pearl got back to Knoxville, Tenn., he was fired on Monday morning.

He wasn't fired for the loss, of course, or even those ugly suspenders. Heck, Tennessee didn't want to fire Pearl at all. Finally, Tennessee men's basketball was consistently successful like it had never been before -- six consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament -- but Tennessee had to do it.

In the end, Pearl just didn't tell the truth to the NCAA during an investigation into his recruiting habits. He went to a BBQ and bumped into a recruit. Not that big of a deal, but he didn't come clean.

"Mistakes were made," is how Pearl put it earlier this season while speaking to the Birmingham Tip-Off Club.

Has Pearl learned from those mistakes?

That question and others linger about Pearl and Auburn basketball as the team prepares for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. Auburn can turn its head and enjoy the games this week and maybe beyond, but too much about these last few months has been left unanswered to fully enjoy this trip back to the Big Dance.

This season started with an unprecedented investigation by the FBI into Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person, and that investigation hasn't gone away. Two players were suspended for this season, but are more penalties on the way?

Pearl is back in the NCAA Tournament, but is he coaching on borrowed time? Eventually, he has to talk to investigators.

Auburn's students and fans love Pearl, and its administrators probably don't even want to think about firing him at this point, but that question has to be considered as this NCAA Tournament begins. Auburn has enjoyed the success Pearl has created this season, yes, but the school still hasn't endorsed Pearl's future.

Here's why: Eight years ago, Tennessee stood by Pearl until it no longer could -- until the NCAA said sacrifice Pearl or else. Auburn doesn't want to find itself in that same situation if more things come to light this offseason.

In trying to cover up a relatively minor recruiting infraction at Tennessee, Pearl lied one too many times to investigators, and the governing body of intercollegiate athletics slapped Pearl with a three-year show-cause penalty. It essentially prohibited any team from hiring him. During his banishment from coaching college basketball, Pearl went and sold groceries for a wholesaler in Tennessee.

Imagine buying summer corn and okra from Bruce Pearl.

Former Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs hired Pearl before the length of that penalty was even over -- a testament to his ability as a coach -- and now Pearl is back, finally, in the NCAA Tournament.

His Auburn Tigers kind of resemble that Michigan team that beat him. They're small, but play great defense. The bench is thin, but just about every scholarship player -- one through eight -- can make a 3-pointer.

There's a lot to like about this Auburn team, its magical run this season and its excitable coach. But there's also still a lot to worry about.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for Alabama Media Group. He's on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.

from Auburn Sports Impact

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