Vacationing in Florida, Bruce Pearl fielded the phone call that almost changed his life. Utah State needed a basketball coach, and the school’s athletic director wanted to know if Pearl would be interested in moving from Division II Southern Indiana to Logan.
“Man, I was excited about that possibility,” Pearl said this week, with his Auburn team playing in the NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena. “I did not get very far in the process, because they hired a guy named Stew Morrill, and it was one of the best hires in college basketball.”
Pearl’s recollections are partly accurate. Morrill enjoyed a remarkable, 17-year tenure at Utah State. Yet if not for Morrill’s unconventional move from Colorado State of the Mountain West to USU of the Big West in 1998, Pearl would have been the next choice, former Aggie athletic director Bruce Van De Velde said.
That information surfaced many years later, when Pearl was becoming famous as Tennessee’s coach, performing in a rap video and painting his chest orange for a women’s basketball game, among other antics. “Two different styles,” Van De Velde said, laughing as he told the story of the coaching search. “Stew is probably a better fit for the Cache Valley.”
If Morrill had turned down USU's offer, who knows how long Pearl may have stayed in Logan or how his career arc would have been altered. He undoubtedly would have won a bunch of basketball games, as has happened everywhere he has coached, during a career that could be described only as adventurous.
Actually, there may be other labels to summarize it, but this part is undeniable: He’s thriving at Auburn at age 59. The school awarded him a contract extension last summer, even after former associate head coach Chuck Person’s involvement in the federal investigation into bribes paid to families of recruits. And the Tigers, once downtrodden in the Southeastern Conference, have reached the NCAA Tournament’s second round for the second year in a row, facing No. 4 seed Kansas on Saturday night.
Auburn advanced via a 78-77 defeat of New Mexico State, having almost blown a 13-point lead at the end.
“I was pleased with our team after the game because we weren’t very happy,” Pearl said Friday. “We were accountable for the fact that we had a meltdown, and we did not play very well defensively or keep New Mexico State off the boards.”
That's his style, direct and honest, which is a nice way of framing the moments when Pearl jumped onto the court Thursday and got after his players as they came to the bench during timeouts.
Asked to describe his coach, Auburn guard Bryce Brown said, “Passionate, aggressive, just wants the best for us players. … He's always on us, mainly our seniors, because he wants us to leave out on a good note.”
Pearl said, “Kids still want discipline. Kids still want to be coached. They want tough love. … By the way, I told my guys, 'Half the time I'm yelling at you, I'm wrong.' ”
Pearl smiled when said that. Morrill was far less demonstrative than Pearl, but he also was demanding. As Morrill once said of players' being accustomed to him, “The veterans know how it all works. But the new guys are stunned.”
The obvious difference is Morrill seemingly never even came close to having any NCAA issues in his 29 years as a head coach at three schools.
In between Southern Indiana and Auburn came Pearl's successful four-year run at Division I Milwaukee and his six-year stay at Tennessee, where the Volunteers made six NCAA appearances (including three trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond). Tennessee fired him in 2011, amid NCAA sanctions stemming from recruiting violations and a cover-up. Pearl was out of coaching for three seasons; even after being hired by Auburn in 2014, he was not allowed to recruit for five months, serving the NCAA's show-cause penalty.
Pearl spent that time away from basketball as an ESPN analyst and a marketing vice president for HT Hackney, overseeing 1,000 employees for the convenience store wholesaler. Asked how he's different as a coach now, Pearl said, “I think a little older, a little wiser, maybe a bit more patient. Maybe a little bit more grateful. Humble.”
And he’s eager to challenge “maybe the most storied program in the history of college basketball” Saturday, facing Kansas and its Hall of Fame coach, Bill Self.
NO. 4 KANSAS VS. NO. 5 AUBURN
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff: Saturday, approximately 7:40 p.m.
Records: Kansas 26-9; Auburn 27-9.
Series history: Auburn leads, 1-0.
Last meeting: Auburn 66, Kansas 64 (1985).
About the Jayhawks: Kansas overwhelmed No. 13 seed Northeastern in the second half of an 87-53 win Thursday. … Junior forward Dedric Lawson led the Jayhawks with 25 points and 11 rebounds and Kansas shot 55.7 percent from the field (going 19 of 27 in the second half) to the Huskies’ 28.1 percent. Vasa Pusica, Northeastern’s star guard, went 2 of 13. … With a victory, Kansas would advance to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, likely facing No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Midwest Region.
About the Tigers: Auburn lost almost all of a 13-point lead in the final seven minutes Thursday, but held on for a 78-77 win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State. … The Aggies outrebounded Auburn 39-24; no Tiger had more than five boards. … Auburn’s only meeting with Kansas came in the 1985 NCAA Tournament, as Chuck Person scored 21 points in the Tigers’ victory and KU freshman Danny Manning was held to seven points.