Joe Medley commentary: Bruce Pearl best answer for tough job

March 18, 2014 

AUBURN, Ala. --Jay Jacobs' choices for a basketball coach were a slam dunk or a bunch of layups, and no layup hire would get Auburn fans to care about basketball.

With the hiring of Bruce Pearl today, Auburn's athletic director is popping the jersey after a slam dunk.

For the first time since Chris Porter popped an Auburn jersey, Auburn fans care about basketball. That's winning half the battle Pearl now faces in taking a mediocre-at-best, naturally challenged SEC program from show cause to show time in that other high-profile NCAA sport.

Yes, welcome to Auburn Arena, which now has a chance to be more than a place to get autographs on the football team's fan day. The 4-year-old arena just might become a better place to take football recruits on a January Saturday.

It might also become a place where low-risk basketball recruits with SEC talent want to play and, dare we say, finish their college careers?

That's assuming that Pearl, who comes with NCAA baggage, proves himself to be low-risk hire for a program than wound up in NCAA trouble twice under Cliff Ellis, the last coach that got Auburn to the NCAA tournament.

Let's be honest. If not for the Pearl being between coaching jobs and under the NCAA-imposed show-cause order until Aug. 23, he's out of Auburn's reach.

That's because we've seen two Auburn basketball programs in the past 20 years, neither indicative of a program that's built for success.

We've seen Auburn under Ellis, the coach who built good teams but not programs. Ellis' Auburn recruited a good class every four years on the promise of immediate playing time, lived with the learning years then enjoyed the good years, when those players gained experience.

That Auburn program produced an SEC championship and No. 1 NCAA regional seed in 1999. It made a surprising Sweet 16 run in 2003, after barely making the NCAA field.

That Auburn program also ran afoul of the NCAA twice -- once in the mid-1990s, over junior college signees Moochie Norris and Chris Davis; and at the end of Ellis' tenure, over AAU entanglements. Though never implicated in either case, Ellis was fired in 2004, and two years of probation with scholarship losses greeted Jeff Lebo.

No hint of NCAA problems since, but no hint of NCAA tourney play, either.

For 10 years under Lebo and Tony Barbee, Auburn basketball became a revolving-door program. Too many players didn't finish their eligibility, at least at Auburn.

Had promising power forward Josh Dollard played his final two years with classmates Korvotney Barber, Quantez Robertson and Rasheem Barrett, Auburn might have made an NCAA bracket or two. The Tigers won 24 games and went three rounds into the NIT without Dollard in 2009, which would have been his senior year.

His 12.5 points and seven rebounds a game were missed. So were the 3-point stroke and passing touch he had developed as a sophomore.

Lebo was fired in 2010, setting the stage for more attrition and four losing seasons under Barbee, who was fired last week. Nine of Barbee's signees didn't make it to his fourth year.

It all begs the question, can today's Auburn basketball live by NCAA rules and sign enough low-risk, SEC-caliber players to enjoy roster continuity and on-court success?

The job requires a coach whose name recruits, even if the name on the front of the jersey can't. Of all the coaches likely to have been in Auburn's reach, Pearl was the best answer.

He's also the charismatic personality who can sell basketball to a football fan base. Watch for a shirtless 50-something in the student section at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

As for living by NCAA rules, Pearl has to prove he can. Auburn must satisfy the NCAA that it will manage a coach that, the governing body of college sports believes, lied to investigators while at Tennessee.

If he can avoid those hushed cookouts with recruits at his house, then maybe Auburn fans can enjoy a rush during basketball season and not worry about what follows.

-- Joe Medley is a columnist for the Anniston (Ala.) Star.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service