John Clay: Pearl's return the type of jolt SEC basketball needs

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 18, 2014 

A shirtless Bruce Pearl yelled in the student section before the Lady Vols college basketball game against Duke in Knoxville, Tenn., in this Jan. 2007. Bruce, a former men's coach at Tennessee, has been hired at Auburn.


Lamenting the fact the SEC placed just three teams in the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari claimed Sunday night that the league's reputation for bad basketball was undeserved.

"I guess if you say it enough and say it enough it becomes real," said the coach.

Tuesday afternoon, however, the image of SEC basketball got much, much better.

Ironically, it did so thanks to one of Calipari's longtime rivals.

Bruce Pearl is back. Not just back in coaching, but back in the SEC, the former Tennessee coach agreeing to become the new basketball coach at Auburn.

After serving a three-year show-cause suspension by the NCAA, Pearl returns to a league he took by storm at Tennessee, leading the Volunteers to six NCAA Tournament bids in six seasons, including three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight.

Not only that, Pearl energized basketball in both Knoxville and the conference. A born salesman and showman, he stood on tables in the school cafeteria, soliciting students to come to games. He famously painted his chest orange and cheered in the UT student section during women's basketball games. He did whatever it took to get people excited about hoops.

And getting people excited about hoops is exactly what the SEC needs now more than ever.

Calipari, Billy Donovan, Mark Fox and company can talk all they want about the strength of SEC basketball, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Jeff Sagarin's computer rated the SEC as the nation's sixth-best basketball league, even factoring in that league champ Florida is ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Look at the non-conference scores. Auburn lost to Northwestern State by 19. Georgia lost to Temple, the worst team in the AAC. Mississippi State lost to TCU, the worst team in the Big 12. South Carolina lost to S.C.-Upstate, for heaven's sake.

Texas A&M lost to North Texas by 20. By 20.

Look at the league's crowds. Or the lack of crowds. Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News ran the numbers, and the average home attendance at basketball games for SEC schools this season was the lowest since 1984-85.

This much we can guarantee: Attendance at Auburn will be up next season.

It will be up because Pearl brings back a link that has been missing from the league's basketball programs for far too long: personality.

Back in the day, the SEC was known for coaches with personality-plus, from LSU's Dale Brown to Georgia's Hugh Durham to Alabama's Wimp Sanderson to Auburn's Sonny Smith. Back then, SEC basketball was fun.

Now, we have boring corporate coaches who do whatever they can to (a) avoid the media and (b) avoid saying anything that might be interpreted as colorful to the media. The result has been bad crowds, bad players, bad teams and, ultimately, a reputation for bad basketball.

The exception to the rule is Calipari, of course. Oh, the Kentucky coach is plenty corporate with his website and his books and his myriad camps. But Calipari doesn't mind saying what he thinks — or what he wants you to think — even if it rubs people the wrong way.

That's where Pearl and Calipari have bumped heads over the years, starting back when Calipari was at Memphis and Pearl was at Tennessee and the state was barely big enough for both of them. The rivalry/feud continued when Calipari came to Kentucky and the two faced off twice a season.

After a three-year hiatus, we'll thankfully see them go head-to-head again, starting next season. And to add spice to the recipe, Pearl just happens to be replacing Tony Barbee, a Calipari protégé who bombed at Auburn, going 49-75 in three seasons with a precipitous drop in attendance.

That shouldn't be a problem next year, judging by Tuesday when fans actually showed up at the Auburn airport to welcome the new basketball coach, who responded by leaping into the crowd.

Welcome back, Bruce. We missed you.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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