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  • Writer's pictureKevin Scarbinsky

Auburn made this day possible when it hired Bruce Pearl

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. Looking at you, Sister Jean. The spirit of Jim Valvano lifts you, the bracket bullies fall before they reach you and you find yourself in rare air at the Final Four.

This isn't one of those times. Auburn isn't one of those teams. Sure, the underseeded, still underappreciated Tigers are in basketball heaven today, getting ready to play No. 1 seed Virginia in the national semifinals, but it's the logical progression of an elite coach building a championship program.

The day Bruce Pearl was introduced as the Auburn head coach, I wrote this for Football changed for the better in the state of Alabama on Jan. 4, 2007. It's a good bet that one day we'll look back and say the same thing about basketball on March 18, 2014.

Today's the day.

Grading on a basketball curve in a football state, Pearl has done for hoops in the Heart of Dixie what Nick Saban did for helmets. He's made winning more of an expectation than a giddy aberration.

Saban did it quicker and at a higher level, and he's sustained it beyond all reasonable standards, but his consistent excellence started with built-in historical advantages at the best program in the nation. Pearl's grind has been more arduous, but he's 80 minutes from the state's first Division I basketball national championship at a program that's long contended for the title of worst in the SEC.

Look back at the slow and steady climb to this point.

Pearl's first year at Auburn ended with a losing record, but before it did, led by - shocker - a shooter named KT Harrell, the Tigers won three straight games in the SEC Tournament for just the second time in school history.

Pearl's second year ended with an even worse record, but before the leading scorer departed midseason, Auburn beat Kentucky and Alabama in consecutive games.

His third year the more competitive Tigers won more than they lost overall with an 11-2 non-conference record and a sweep of Alabama.

Last year they won the SEC regular-season championship, just the third in program history, ended the SEC's longest NCAA Tournament drought of 14 years and earned a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance, the second highest by any group of Tigers.

This year? Second SEC Tournament title in school history (the first since 1985), second Elite Eight in school history (the first since 1986), first Final Four in state history and a state record for single-season victories in a state that's been home to legends Gene Bartow, C.M. Newton, Wimp Sanderson and Sonny Smith.

Observe the pattern, and it's not one giant leap for Auburnkind. It's the logical next step for a program that decided five years ago it was tired of life as a doormat. Then-AD Jay Jacobs gave Auburn basketball new life by giving Pearl a second chance.

It's an honest and necessary part of the narrative, but not all the baggage Pearl brought to the Plains contained smelly barbecue. He also brought passion, hunger, knowledge and experience, a way to play, a way to win, a way with people. He was imperfect, as even the most celebrated coaches at the most elite programs are, but he was the perfect coach for Auburn at the perfect time.

He and his program haven't been perfect these past five seasons, but they've made an indelible impression on their school, state and conference.

Eleven of the other 13 SEC programs have changed head coaches since Auburn hired Pearl. Alabama's done it twice. It's been an epidemic of Why Not Us? Only Kentucky's John Calipari and South Carolina's Frank Martin have been at their current posts longer - and Pearl's Tigers beat them both during this 12-game win streak.

During this dandy dozen run, Pearl has eight wins against coaches who've been to the Final Four, the last three against giants with national titles. He and the Tigers have traveled one of the toughest roads in NCAA Tournament history just to get to the Final Four by taking down the three winningest programs of all time in succession. Only one of those blueblood bloodbaths was close down the stretch. That doesn't happen by accident or magic.

Another No. 1 seed, a basketball school from a basketball league, stands between Auburn and the national championship game. Everyone who's anyone, especially if they went to Duke and work for ESPN - which may be redundant - is picking Virginia to win. Have these erudite analysts learned nothing?

It's not just the past five weeks that tell the story of this special Auburn basketball team. It's the past five years. It's the story of overcoming insult, injury, indictment and history to build something.

This Final Four, this incredible, unforgettable Final Four, is a first. Don't be surprised if it's not the last.

The first Final Four in Auburn history gives Bruce Pearl and his Tigers the chance for an even more triumphant return to the Plains. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

1 comment

1 Comment

Apr 06, 2019


I’ve missed your commentary and am so glad I can read you again. My dad, who was a long-time editor of Guntersville’s Advertiser-Gleam, was also a big fan - he told me many times that the sports reporters were usually the best writers on acnewspaper’s staff, and that you were a case in point. Can’t wait for each new post.

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