Season preview: CHD interviews Auburn coach Bruce Pearl

To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with new Auburn coach Bruce Pearl about coming back to the SEC.

pearlYou worked for Tom Davis as a team manager/emergency mascot at Boston College and an assistant at Stanford and Iowa: what made him such a great coach, and what is the most important thing that you ever learned from him? He was a great teacher who looked at himself as a classroom teacher and his class was basketball. He was very smart and had tremendous integrity. He taught me the system that I have used my entire career and taught me to be patient as a teacher. He got stuff out of guys who most coaches would have never stuck with because he was patient.

In the 1987 NCAA tourney as an assistant at Iowa, Kevin Gamble scored 26 points (11-13 FG) and made a 21-footer with two seconds left in a 2-point overtime win over Oklahoma: where does that rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen? It was big: I would say it probably ranks in the top-5. Oklahoma had a great team: both of us were very talented teams with a lot of guys who eventually played in the NBA. That shot got us to the Regional Final were we shoulda-coulda beat UNLV. We had an 18-point lead in the first half against Vegas to go to the Final 4. 1987 was the year that Keith Smart hit the jump shot from the baseline to win the title, while Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino were together in the Final 4 for Providence.

After becoming head coach at Southern Indiana in 1992 you made nine straight Division 2 tourneys, won the 1995 D-2 title game, and were named D-2 national COY: how were you able to remain so dominant over such a long period of time, and what did it mean to you to win a title? Once you win a title it can never be taken away from you. In 1995 we were the best in D-2 and the title is yours forever, along with your school’s and your players’. The consistency speaks to the ability to recruit and retain great staffs and committed fan bases.

In the 2003 NCAA tourney as head coach at Milwaukee (the first NCAA tourney game in school history), Dylan Page scored 15 points but watched his layup attempt under the basket roll off the front of the rim at the buzzer in a 1-point loss to 5-seed Notre Dame: where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? It is right there. Dylan was a great player for us. It was not even a layup: he just had to catch it and put it in uncontested. It was halfway between a dunk and a layup, and he tried to do a little of both: it just hit the back of the rim and went out. That was a tough one: one of the toughest of my career. We lost at the buzzer at Butler for a regular season conference championship at Milwaukee, which was also a tough one, and I remember losing to Michigan State to go to the Final 4. Those would probably be the three toughest buzzer-beater-type losses.

In the 2007 NCAA tourney as head coach at Tennessee, Greg Oden had four blocks including one on Ramar Smith’s shot at the buzzer in a 1-point win by eventual runner-up Ohio State: what did you tell your team at halftime when you had a 17-point lead, and were the Buckeyes able to overcome such a huge deficit? We always talk about being down 10 even when we are up big. Ohio State made 29 free throws in the second half and we led almost the entire game. We were not trying to foul, but the top ball screen with Mike Conley Jr. was poorly officiated. He drove it into contact with no place to go and was consistently rewarded. There is no other way to describe it: how does your opponent make 29 free throws in a game that you are leading almost the entire way?!

You are president of the Jewish Coaches Association and were head coach for team USA at the 2009 World Maccabiah Games: how important is your faith? My faith and my relationship with God mean everything to me. Helping form the Jewish Coaches Association and becoming the president was a great honor. Coaching the Maccabiah team to a gold medal in Israel was definitely a highlight.

In March you were named head coach at Auburn: why did you take the job, and how much will you miss working on TV? ESPN was great to work for: I really enjoyed my time there. I just think God would not have put this opportunity in front of me if it was not something that he wanted me to do. I missed making a difference in the lives of student-athletes on a college campus and in the community. Coming to Auburn was a chance to get back in the SEC, which is a conference that I care about a great deal. We did a lot of really good things in our time at Tennessee and I was upset with the way it ended because I let the conference down, but now I have an opportunity to come to Auburn and make amends. Auburn is a great fit for me and my family: this is a really special community and a place where we are comfortable living and giving our all for.

Your non-conference schedule includes games against Colorado, Clemson, and Xavier: which of these games do you feel will present your biggest test? The road game at Colorado will be as tough an environment and as tough a challenge as we have on our schedule. Clemson is also a great environment. The Xavier game is at home, but I think the size and physicality of all three of those teams could be a problem for us.

The team’s leading scorer from last year has graduated (Chris Denson): how much pressure is there on KT Harrell to be a leader this year? It is not so much pressure as it is the torch being passed. KT leads by example and represents Auburn and our basketball program as well as anybody could. I am very proud of KT.

What are your goals for the upcoming season, and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? The goals are to make progress and build a foundation for a nationally competitive program.