published Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Bruce Pearl happy at Auburn, happy for Tennessee Vols

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

Last month, Bruce Pearl was an ESPN college basketball analyst who was wanted by thousands of Tennessee fans to come back and coach in Knoxville after a three-year absence.

Pearl is now Auburn's coach, having signed a six-year contract at $2.2 million annually. The Tigers have not been to the NCAA tournament since 2003, so Pearl's hiring was viewed as a major coup for Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs.

Meanwhile at Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin recently took the Volunteers on an impressive run to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 and should soon receive a pay hike as well.

Pearl was a guest Tuesday on "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 The Zone.

Q: You said at your hiring announcement that your contract showed the commitment Auburn has to developing a championship basketball program. What other signs of commitment have you seen?

A: "I really feel like the confidence people have around here has more to do with Auburn than it does with Bruce Pearl. People here have seen Auburn do great things, and they know that anything is possible. Gus [Malzahn, the football coach] showed us that last year, and I'm not even going to begin to try to think that we can do anything remotely comparable in my first year.

"Our fans have a confidence in Auburn, and they have a confidence in Jay Jacobs. He has made a commitment with this facility and this change in coaching staff, and I'm going to hire the best staff that I can and recruit the best players that we can and become relevant in the world of college basketball. It's going to happen, but I don't know when."

Q: Auburn had a run in the 1980s under Sonny Smith and another one more recently under Cliff Ellis, and those are the only two coaches to take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament. How much have you visited with either one of them, and what have they told you about this challenge?

A: "I've visited with Sonny, and I'm going to be talking with Cliff at the Final Four. They both believe it can be done. They both had great experiences here, and this is still home for Sonny. He knows what it takes. There are great donors and passionate fans here that have been patient and are excited about having something in that transition between football and spring football.

"That's my job -- get us from football to spring football and give us something to be excited about. For now, it's about the process and the way we're going to play."

Q: What about fighting the perception of Under Armour versus Nike and Adidas in the AAU camps? How real is that?

A: "I was with Nike when I coached at Milwaukee, and I was with Adidas when I coached at Tennessee. Now we're with Under Armour, and that's our partner. They are a phenomenal apparel company that has made a lot of progress in the shoe industry. There are some challenges as far as grass-roots basketball is concerned, because they haven't been doing it as long.

"They've had some great programs, and I've been assured by their leadership that they value their relationship with Auburn as much as any program in the country. If we were with Adidas or Nike, we may not be in that position."

Q: How would you describe how your three-year hiatus from coaching affected you?

A: "I missed the kids. I missed senior night. I missed going to graduations. I missed putting it together. I missed going up against the guy down at the other end and knowing the challenges that we faced. I missed trying to help SEC basketball have a brand and have a better position in the world of college basketball.

"What Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee did this year shows how great the SEC can be, but it also showed a big gap between them and the programs in the lower half of the league."

Q: Regarding the petition to bring you back, as someone living in Knoxville, how awkward was that experience to go through?

A: "I spent about half of my time during the season in Bristol [Conn.] at ESPN, and the only time I really saw stuff about that was on Twitter. I came out a couple of times and asked people to please stop and to support the players and the coaching staff and their university. It was nice that people recognized that we had a really special run at Tennessee, and my family and I maintained our residence and connection to the community, but it wasn't my team, and I asked people to support Coach Martin.

"Coach Martin showed that he had a really good basketball team, and he was doing a really good job of coaching them up. It was distracting for a while, but I am really pleased with the way things worked out for me here at Auburn and for the way Tennessee finished."

Q: Auburn and Tennessee play next season in Knoxville. What will that experience be like for you, and what kind of reception do you expect?

A: "They'll be 'Bruing' me or booing me, one or the other. I can't tell you which one, and it may be a mixture. It will be like any other SEC game once it gets started. It will be a little awkward being in the visiting locker room, but as a competitor you put that aside.

"I just look forward to the day I can bring a competitive team."

Q: There is a chance of an all-SEC final Monday night with Florida and Kentucky. If you could put your analyst hat back on, who would you like in that matchup?

A: "I've had Florida all year long, but I actually did pick Kentucky before the season to win the national championship, so I'm in a win-win situation. The biggest challenge is can Florida beat Kentucky for a fourth time if it comes to that, because every time Kentucky has gotten closer and closer.

"Kentucky is playing with great confidence right now, and it should be a great matchup. I'm certainly rooting for Florida and Kentucky to play each other again."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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