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As engaging as ever, Pearl settles in at Auburn

By John Adams Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tenn.) (MCT) • Updated May 29, 2014 at 12:47 AM

DESTIN, Fla. — A reporter wondered aloud on the first day of the SEC spring meetings Tuesday whether Auburn would set up interviews for its football and basketball coaches.

“(Football coach Gus) Malzahn will be sometime Wednesday,” an Auburn beat reporter responded. “And Bruce … well, you can probably get him anytime.”

Accessibility is not a new trait. His accessibility applied to fans as well as the media in his six years at Tennessee.

Three years later, the comments from Alabama media suggest little as changed.

The same coach who led the Vols to six consecutive NCAA tournaments has been as engaging as ever at the spring meetings. While so many coaches will speak only at scheduled times, Pearl walks through the hotel looking approachable. He might as well have a sticker on his shirt: “Let’s talk.”

“Sure, I’ve got a few minutes,” is his typical response to a random media request.

NCAA penalties took the coach from his profession for three years. But they didn’t impact an irrepressible extrovert’s willingness to engage.

Pearl’s personality served him well in his introductory news conference in Auburn. His success at Tennessee served him better.

“I finally won a press conference,” Pearl said as though he had achieved a career-long goal. “I won a press conference at Auburn.

“I didn’t win the press conference at Tennessee. I was from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, another mid-major guy that you kind of hoped could do it.”

Hope turned into hurrahs as the Vols repeatedly beat some of the best teams in the country, became an NCAA tournament regular, and came within a last-minute loss of making the Final Four for the first time in school history.

A similarly quick fix won’t be as likely at Auburn, which just finished last in the SEC, was 14-16 overall and won a grand total of two games away from home.

Pearl admits to his good fortune in his first season at Tennessee, where his 2005-06 team went 22-8.

“I came in with the perfect style of play (for the available players),” Pearl said. “I had Major Wingate on the ball in pressure. I had a future NBA point guard (C.J. Watson). A shooter in Chris Lofton.

“And two guys, in Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, that were undersized but built to play 94-foot basketball. It was a match made in heaven.

“Here, it’s a different challenge. But I like our players. They’re buying in.”

Pearl won’t drastically alter his approach. He will employ an up-tempo attack even if it’s detrimental to his record, because that’s the system to which he will recruit.

Circumstances indicate this won’t be a quick fix. He certainly can’t expect to come out of the gate as quickly as he did at Tennessee.

NCAA sanctions will slow him down.

Tennessee fired Pearl three years ago for lying to NCAA investigations about a minor recruiting infraction. As part of the three-year NCAA sanctions, Pearl is prohibited from recruiting until Aug. 24.

“So I couldn’t hit the ground running,” he said. “In the summer, I can’t go out and see the junior class.”

However, there are no speed bumps impeding his promotional efforts.

He’s already planning an Auburn letterman’s day on which former players and even coaches can return to campus en masse.

“We’ve got to heal,” he said. “We’ve been through too many coaches and staffs. So you invite back the guys who care about Auburn basketball.

The Auburn family has been broken up so much, it’s not healthy. But everybody at Auburn is glad to be there.

“I’ve just got to do something they can be proud of.”

Based on his track record, he will do that faster than expected.

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