Updated: Bruce Pearl tabbed to lead Auburn's men's basketball program (w/arrival video)

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 18, 2014 

AUBURN, Ala.Bruce Pearl has never had a problem expressing his emotions.

In coaching career that has lasted nearly two decades, boundless energy and enthusiasm has been his trademark. As he was about to disembark the plane that brought him to Auburn University Regional Airport on Tuesday, he stood in the doorway and fist-pumped five times, with delirious Tiger fans roaring in the background.

And he was just getting started.

Walking toward the fans, he began acknowledging his well-wishers, waving at each one. Then he put the icing on the cake, jumping into the mosh pit of adoring Auburn supporters.

Once he finally waded out of the crowd, the man who has assumed the reins of Auburn's men's basketball program spoke.

"I don't know how long it's going to take, but I want this same reception when we come back with an SEC championship!" he shouted.

After making a few more comments and thanking Auburn for giving him an opportunity to coach once more, he was whisked away into a waiting SUV along with the man who hired him: athletic director Jay Jacobs.

When Tony Barbee was relieved of his coaching duties following a loss in the first round of the SEC tournament last week, Jacobs said he planned to bring in a "proven winner."

The Tigers did just that on Tuesday, tabbing Pearl to guide the the program into the future.

"We are committed to winning championships here at Auburn and it starts right here tonight with men's basketball," Jacobs said at Pearl's introductory press conference.

And in a bit of coincidental timing, Pearl was named Auburn's coach on his 54th birthday.

"How about that?" Pearl said in a video produced by the athletic department shortly after his arrival Tuesday. "Yeah, it was a pretty good birthday present when I signed that contract, I tell you that."

And it's a hefty contract at that, as Pearl agreed on a six-year deal which will pay him $2.2 million per season. It's an increase over the $1.9 million he made in his final year at Tennessee in 2010-11.

During his six seasons in Knoxville, Tenn., Pearl was highly successful, leading the Volunteers to a record of 145-61. Each of those seasons ended with an NCAA tournament berth, which included a run to the Elite Eight in 2009-10 along with two other Sweet 16 appearances.

He was every bit as good in SEC competition. He won the conference's regular season title in 2008 — the same year he helped Tennessee achieve its first No. 1 ranking in school history — and captured the Eastern Division crown on two other occasions.

But his tenure at Tennessee ended in controversy. He was fired in March of 2011 after lying to NCAA investigators about impermissible contact he had with high school recruits during a cookout at his home three years earlier.

Once he was terminated by Tennessee, he was slapped with a three-year show cause penalty, which is in effect until Aug. 23.

Pearl was grateful for the opportunity, saying he didn't believe a coaching offer would come his way job this year with the show cause sanction still hanging over his head.

"It's been a long three years being away from the game, as a coach and even as a father, when I made the mistakes I made at Tennessee, I let a lot of people down," he said. "I let my family down. I let my university down. I let the people down that believed in me."

Rest assured that Jacobs is squarely in his corner.

So smitten with making Pearl the Tigers' next coach, the athletic director flew up to Bristol, Conn., — where Pearl was working at the ESPN studios as a college basketball analyst — last Friday to make his pitch in-person.

"When I started visiting with Bruce Pearl, I found a man that had passion, who had vision, who is a family man, a man who wants to win and do it the right way," he said, "and take Auburn basketball to a level we haven't had in quite some time."

Prior to his time at Tennessee, he was a successful coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, going 86-38 from 2001-05. Including his nine seasons at Division II Southern Indiana, Pearl owns a career record of 462-145, which translates to a 76.1 percent winning percentage. What's more, in 19 years as a college head coach, Pearl has never had a losing season.

Regardless of where he has been, Pearl said the core tenets of his coaching philosophy have remained the same.

"There are still a lot of things about the team that I don’t know that I’m going to have to study, but that’s the case with every team," he said. "This team was coached well. Tony did a really good job. They had good schemes and they were prepared. They played hard."

Still, he admitted he knows the returning players comprise a "wounded team," one that has finished among the bottom three teams in the SEC each of the last four years.

Even so, he made one thing perfectly clear: Forget any talk of bringing in "his type" of players in recruiting, making a promise he would "never" make such a remark.

Standing at the podium, he pointed to his left, where the basketball team was seated.

"Those are my players right there," he said. "And I'm their coach."

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