Column: Pearl works magic at Auburn

By JOHNATHAN BENTLEY, Eagle Sports Editor
Posted 4/5/20

Prior to Bruce Pearl’s arrival, Auburn’s basketball program had a storied history that could be summed up with one word — Barkley.

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Column: Pearl works magic at Auburn

Posted

Prior to Bruce Pearl’s arrival, Auburn’s basketball program had a storied history that could be summed up with one word — Barkley.

That was about the extent of it. At least we had Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.

Now Auburn is currently experiencing its best run of success in school history under Pearl, who had guided the Tigers to the Final Four while winning SEC regular season and tournament titles over the last two years.

When I started paying attention to Auburn basketball, the Tigers were well past the days of Barkley.

The first game I attended set the tone for what I was going to be dealing with for the next two-plus decades.

In December of 1989, Auburn faced the Tennessee Tech — hmm, I don’t know their nickname — at the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville.

The game, which you think would be an easy Auburn win, was not. Tennessee Tech won, and was probably favored from the beginning.

Back then, Auburn fans hoped for a win, but a close loss was just as good. The main goal was to try not to get embarrassed. Those were dark times. The light at the end of the tunnel could only be seen through a powerful telescope.

Who was the coach back then? Have you ever heard of Tommy Joe Eagles?

Well, he was the coach.

I think Auburn hired him strictly due to his last name. I would have had a stipulation in the contract to make sure he changed his middle name to “War.”

Eagles went 64-78 at Auburn. In his last season, Eagles had two players that averaged more than 20 points and yet finished 11-17.

I didn’t think Auburn would ever do worse than Eagles.

I was wrong.

In 2010, Tony Barbee was named the head coach and Auburn found itself at the bottom of the conference yet again.

Barbee is now part of the John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky.

I picture him walking Calipari’s dogs at the park with a plastic bag over one hand. I wouldn’t trust him with much more after he drove Auburn’s program, which had a brand new arena at the time, into the ground. 

Barbee started his Auburn career with consecutive losses to UNC-Asheville, Samford and Campbell — at home. The Tigers even lost to the Presbyterian Blue Hose, and yes, that is their nickname. In the SEC opener that year Auburn scored six points in the first half against LSU — also at home. The score was 32-6.

The Tigers should have cut their losses, admitted they made a terrible mistake and moved on from Barbee after that first season. Instead, he hung around for four years, going 18-50 in the SEC and essentially burying the program.

Barbee is the worst coach in Auburn history. I would say that’s my opinion, but it’s actually a fact.

Then it happened.

I was at a car auction with my father in Athens on March 18, 2014 when some breaking news came across my phone — Auburn had named Bruce Pearl their new head basketball coach.

I was thrilled.

There were some that questioned the hire. Pearl was still under a show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA while at Tennessee. I figured Auburn was one of the worst teams in the SEC and was basically under four years of self-imposed probation under Barbee so the Tigers had nothing to lose.

After all, Auburn had not made the NCAA Tournament since 2002-2003 season — the longest drought of any Power 5 team — and hadn’t even been ranked since January of 2003. The Tigers had enjoyed a few years of success in the late-90s and early 2000s — the 1998-99 team was a No. 1 seed — under coach Cliff Ellis before another long drought.

From 2003 to 2017 the highlight was the 2008-09 team making the quarterfinals of the NIT.

After the Barbee tenure, Pearl needed a couple of years to get things on track.

Prior to arriving at Auburn, Pearl had never had a losing season in 19 years as a head coach. That came to an end. He was a combined 26-40 in his first two seasons at Auburn. However, since producing his first winning team in 2016-17, Auburn is 81-24.

Over that same span mighty Kentucky is also 81-24.

Before Pearl, Auburn had won 25 games or more just once (1998-99). Now the Tigers have accomplished the feat three straight seasons.

Auburn made its first ever Final Four last year and was poised to make another run this year before the coronavirus brought an unfortunate end to the season.

Pearl will have an entirely new roster next season. There is a good possibility that the starting five will feature all new faces, but as long as Pearl is at the helm the wins — and NCAA Tournament appearances — will keep piling up.

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Johnathan Bentley is the Sports Editor at the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at sports@mountaineagle.com.