KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A local restaurant was abuzz with March Madness on Tuesday afternoon. But it was a different kind of madness.
It had nothing to do with Tennessee beginning play in the NCAA tournament Wednesday. Or a bracket debate over a possible No. 12 vs. No. 5 upset.
It was all about Bruuuuuuce, the same name that not so long ago reverberated through Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I’ve been to 20 tables, and they’re all talking about Bruce Pearl,” the restaurant manager said.
Of course they were.
The same coach who revived Tennessee basketball had just been hired to do the same at Auburn. Tennessee’s worst basketball nightmare had come true. The popular coach it fired three years ago following Pearl’s NCAA violations was going to another SEC school.
A debate ensued at the lunch counter.
“I think he will be booed when he comes back here,” my friend said.
“He will be cheered,” I countered.
“But he left Tennessee,” he said. “He could have waited another year and come back to Tennessee.”
Actually, he couldn’t have. It became obvious that Tennessee wouldn’t have hired Pearl back regardless of whether the program had swerved terribly off course this season or next. He would have grown old waiting to be rehired by the school he took to six consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Too much baggage, UT administrators apparently decided.
Auburn welcomes that baggage. Its basketball program is beyond bad. Its fan base is apathetic.
Pearl vs. Apathy is a No. 1 vs. No. 16 mismatch in tournament parlance. He takes Apathy behind the woodshed and kicks its butt.
Auburn basketball needs a promoter, former Auburn coach Sonny Smith said at last week’s SEC tournament.
When we talked again by phone Monday afternoon, Smith said, “Even if Pearl couldn’t coach, he would be a great hire for Auburn.”
He can coach. He proved that when he took coach Buzz Peterson’s players and turned them into an NCAA tournament team in 2005-06, his first season at Tennessee.
He can coach, promote and recruit. And he can do it at a football school.
Pearl won’t hide from Auburn’s football success. He will embrace it. He will tout Gus Malzahn as a coaching genius, scream “War Eagle” at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and celebrate at Toomer’s Corner if Auburn wins the Iron Bowl.
Auburn didn’t just hire a basketball coach. It added another fan.
A fast turnaround might seem improbable. The Tigers got worse as the season went along under recently fired coach Tony Barbee. A John Calipari-like recruiting class isn’t waiting in the wings.
But they have won before — under Smith and Cliff Ellis. The fertile recruiting courts of Atlanta aren’t that faraway. And there’s room for upward mobility in a conference no longer prospering in basketball.
So what if Pearl has been out of coaching for three seasons, as mandated by a ridiculously harsh NCAA sentence. It’s not as though he vanished from the college basketball landscape.
Recruits will recognize the face and voice from Pearl’s high-profile role as an ESPN analyst. And even the most apathetic Auburn fan might remember him as the coach who bared his chest and painted it orange for a Lady Vols basketball game.
Auburn fans met their new coach at the airport Tuesday. He immediately became the centerpiece in a mosh pit of fans.
He will make quick work of Apathy. Then, he will start rebuilding Auburn basketball.