By Alex Norman
Bruce Pearl loves Knoxville so much he chose to stay here, despite his firing in March 2011.
Knoxville loves Bruce Pearl so much tens of thousands of Tennessee fans signed a petition demanding his return as Vols basketball coach.
Today Pearl has a new team, and a new home…
And Knoxville can’t let go.
As the news broke last Tuesday morning that Pearl had accepted the head coaching job at Auburn, I observed social media and listened to local sports talk radio.
You would have thought everyone simultaneously learned their puppy was eaten by a coyote.
Pearl, arguably the most popular figure associated with the modern era of Tennessee athletics (this side of Peyton Manning and Pat Summitt of course), will be back coaching in the SEC next season, and will bring his Tigers to Thompson-Boling Arena in 2015.
“I’m humbled and blessed to be back in the game that I love,” Pearl said in a statement released by the Auburn Sports Information Department. “I don’t know how long it will take, but it’s time to rebuild the Auburn basketball program, and bring it to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy.”
“Coach Pearl is a proven winner who will bring energy and excitement to our program,” said Auburn Athletics Director Jay Jacobs. “We have raised the bar for Auburn basketball, and I could not be more excited for our student-athletes and our future under Coach Pearl’s leadership. I know he agrees with me — it’s time to win.”
Jacobs added, “From the moment I met Coach Pearl and heard his vision for our basketball program, it was clear he’s the right man at the right time for Auburn.”
That basketball program certainly needed something. Over the past four years Auburn posted a 48-75 record under Tony Barbee, including an 18-50 record in the SEC.
By contrast, in Pearl’s six seasons at Tennessee (2005-2011), the Vols went 145-61 overall with a 65-31 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
Pearl has won everywhere he’s been a head coach. Southern Indiana and Milwaukee-Wisconsin and Tennessee each got better immediately, and the expectation is for the same to occur at Auburn. Granted, the Tigers roster does not have as much talent as the C.J. Watson/Chris Lofton/Dane Bradshaw team that awaited Pearl at Tennessee in 2005, but at the very least they will be more entertaining. And if the past is any indication, Pearl will have them in the NCAA tournament soon.
Pearl still must finish the remaining few months of his NCAA “show-cause” penalty, but after late August he will be free and clear to recruit and run the Auburn program (there will be limitations on what he can do until then). The SEC, which was a dreadful basketball conference this season, has one of college basketball’s great showmen back on the sidelines. The college game and the SEC are better off with Pearl than without him.
As for Tennessee, and the fan base that simply can’t come to terms with the fact that Pearl is gone, where do they go from here?
Barring something unforeseen Cuonzo Martin will return for his fourth season as the Vols head coach, but with a roster that loses a ton of talent. Tennessee barely made the NCAA tournament this year, and getting back to the Field of 68 is going to be very difficult.
And if Pearl brings his Tigers into Thompson-Boling Arena and leaves with a victory next season? Lord help us. Knoxville will be declared a national disaster area… Couple that development with a loss to Alabama (and Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin) in October and Knoxville will start to resemble the scenes in NBC’s “Revolution.”
This, of course, is a lot of exaggeration. Bruce Pearl to Auburn will not force Knoxville to inevitably become a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
It just feels that way… to many Vols fans.