COLUMBIA — When the subject is Bruce Pearl, the conversation always begins with the same thing.
“He and I are both about the same age, and he’s kept himself in way better shape than I have,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin. “Hopefully, neither one of us has to take our shirts off during the game, or we definitely have no chance to win.”
Indeed, that image of Pearl, bare-chested and slathered in orange during his days at Tennessee, continues to define a coach whose personality is as big as any in college basketball. After three years away from the game due to NCAA recruiting infractions, he returned with a flourish at perennial cellar-dweller Auburn — where he arrived at his first Midnight Madness practice in the guise of Tigers football coach Gus Malzahn, complete with sweater vest, visor and play cards.
“He’s got a flair, a spark about the things he does and how he does them,” said Martin, whose Gamecocks play at Auburn at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, “and it always comes across with a bang.”
A bang is what the moribund Auburn program needed after lean years under Jeff Lebo and Tony Barbee and an NCAA tournament drought which now stretches a dozen seasons. Hired in March, Pearl brought hope of a quick turnaround — he made six NCAA trips at Tennessee, including one his first season — but also the baggage of violations which ended his tenure in Knoxville, forced him out of the game for three seasons, and even barred him from recruiting for the first four months of his new job.
In the interim, Pearl worked as an analyst for ESPN and pondered his future. Auburn, with a new arena and the support of former Tigers great Charles Barkley, proved the right fit in a familiar league. He could even keep his orange ties.
“I think there was a time in some of my conversations with him when it first happened at Tennessee, in whether or not he was going to coach and what he was going to do,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “I think he really got a chance to evaluate and take time to think about what he wanted to do. I think for him, he felt very, very good about the Auburn situation, and what he could bring there.”
The NCAA sanctions — which stemmed in part from a cookout at Pearl’s home in which he hosted a recruit — left him unable to recruit for Auburn until midnight on Aug. 23. The minute the ban ended, Pearl reportedly began working the phones, and did so for the next three hours. The next day, he hosted prospects on campus. Pearl managed to bring in a wave of transfers and junior college players, including 6-7, 278-pound forward Cinmeon Bowers, now the leading rebounder in the SEC.
Clearly, the man hadn’t lost his touch. But Auburn (9-7, 1-2 SEC) remains a work in progress, as evidenced by a December loss to Coastal Carolina and a 20-point setback Thursday at Florida. Pearl lost the summer recruiting season due to the sanctions, and Auburn lost its leading scorer off a team which had finished 12th in the league the previous season.
“We had some real challenges,” Pearl said. “I’m very proud of my assistant coaches and what we’ve been able to do to put together a roster on real short notice that is at least not getting overwhelmed. This could have been a disastrous season, and we’re fighting really hard so it won’t be. We’ve still got a long way to go, we’re still learning. But we have talent on this team.”
There are certainly some pieces in place, with Bowers, returning guard K.T. Harrell, and guard Antoine Mason, a Niagara transfer who was the country’s leading returning scorer. And then there’s Pearl himself, whose infectious optimism and larger-than-life personality play well at a school which hasn’t enjoyed sustained basketball success since Cliff Ellis departed the Plains.
“Bruce is charismatic. Bruce is great,” said Martin, whose Gamecocks (10-5, 1-2) won their first league game Tuesday night against Alabama. “Just follow his career — everywhere he’s been, they win. He gets kids to believe in themselves, to believe in what he’s doing, and he gets them playing at a high, high level.”
There’s been no body paint, at least not yet. But it’s the same Pearl, perhaps a bit chastened by his Tennessee experience, trying to use his showman’s style to lift another SEC program from the bottom to the top.
“We’d like for Auburn to one day be a bigger target,” he said. “We’re not a big target. We’re still a team that’s in the bottom of the league that’s trying to work its way into the middle.”