MINNEAPOLIS — It may have been a different stage, but Bruce Pearl has been here before.
After transitioning from an assistant coach position at Iowa to his first head coaching job at Southern Indiana, Pearl developed a 10-win team into a back-to-back national championship contender. The team lost the title in its second season under Pearl before winning in its third.
With the Final Four beginning on Saturday, Pearl said it was his third time competing for a championship.
Twenty-six years after winning a title with USI, Pearl recognized how his experience in Division II shaped his role in rebuilding a basketball culture in Auburn.
“I cut my teeth there,” Pearl said. “I was challenged there and had an opportunity to survive and to win enough and to be successful enough to be able to keep a job and grow in the profession.”
Though Pearl may know how to handle a championship run, he said that he hasn’t shared his stories about the Screaming Eagles or his time at Tennessee with this team, but he’s sure that they know about his history.
While at Iowa, Pearl understood the mentality of Division I basketball in the Big 10 and wanted to maintain the same expectations in Evansville, Indiana. Before a 12-game turnaround in 1992, Pearl told his players that they would be competing for championships.
It’s the same thing he told his players in his first season at Auburn.
“I came to Auburn and said we’re going to be relevant and we’re going to compete for championships, which means just getting to the upper division,” Pearl said.
Three seasons later, Auburn won its first regular-season championship since 1999 and earned its first NCAA Tournament berth in 15 years.
Separate from success on the court, Pearl also realized that he was tasked with changing how basketball players were perceived on campus. While other sports and athletes were celebrated more often, Pearl said, no one paid much attention to the basketball program.
“When I got to Auburn, our basketball program, our athletes may have been recognized as athletes,” Pearl said, “but they didn't wear a lot of Auburn basketball gear because it wasn't — we weren't holding up our end.
“I look at it now as our guys now have a right to fit into the rest of the campus.”
Before winning 26 games in the 2017-18 season, the last time Auburn had surpassed 20 wins was nearly 10 years earlier in 2008.
Despite a regular-season run that season and postseason success in 2019, Pearl said that his players should act like they had been there before. After advancing to the program’s first Elite Eight in 33 years, Pearl wanted history to look like just another season.
“We didn’t celebrate that success [in 2018],” Pearl said. “We talked about the fact that at the end of the year we had unfinished business because we lost in the second round of the tournament.”
When redefining expectations and perception of a basketball program, Pearl said the first step is with the players.
After a 31-point loss to Clemson in the Round of 32, Pearl wanted to focus on competing again in the same light the next season.
“The No. 1 thing you do is you raise the expectation level of your players,” Pearl said. “When I have inherited different programs at different places along the way, their expectation was not to be able to compete for a conference championship.”
Now, with his team competing in the program’s first Final Four, those expectations have noticeably changed.
“We’ve proven that our kids can come to Auburn, get better, and play for championships," Pearl said.
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