Behind the Scenes as Bruce Pearl and Auburn Sealed a Long-Awaited Sweet 16
SALT LAKE CITY — Bruce Pearl’s voice has recovered in the 40 hours or so since he screamed his vocal chords raw during Auburn’s last-second, first-round win over New Mexico State. His players’ legs? He’s not as sure about their condition. The Tigers’ second-round matchup against Kansas is 10 hours away. It’s the Tigers’ sixth game in 10 days, which is why Pearl scheduled team breakfast for 10:00 a.m.
The 59-year-old Pearl is seated in a hidden dining room beneath the Marriott as the Auburn players quietly ladle scramble eggs, potatoes, oatmeal and fruit onto their plates. “These kids came to Auburn on a promise,” he says, “a promise that we’d play in games like this.” He cranes his neck, laying eyes on each of them. “When they joined this program, we weren’t relevant. I promised them that if they came, we would be. I said that together we’d have a chance to make history.”
Pearl usually wakes up around six, “with my mind moving a million miles an hour,” but today he slept until 7:30, which for most folks is like snoozing through lunch. After a workout at the Marriott gym (“because I sweat like a banshee and I can’t imagine how much I’d sweat during the game if I didn’t work out before”), he watched Kansas film for an hour, “to see if I missed anything,” then he fielded a call from ESPN Radio and contributed a lively segment to the Dari and Mel Show. “Because I spent three years in that building and I know they have time to fill.”
“Look, these kids get a ton of me,” he says of his busy morning. “So I try to leave them alone, give them their space, let them relax, go upstairs and watch games on TV.”
The more time they spend off their feet, the better. Once Auburn squeaked past a determined New Mexico State team whose 30–4 record looked odd next to the 12-seed they were assigned, the Tigers’ road to the Final Four crystallized. They’d have to beat Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky—or the teams that upset those three bluebloods. “That’s before we get to the Final Four!” Pearl says with childlike eagerness. “Could you ask for a better draw if you’re trying to make history?”
The team bus leaves at 12:15 for the shootaround at Vivint Smart Home Arena in downtown Salt Lake City. Each team is granted 30 minutes of court time once the first basketball hits the floor, but for some reason the balls are nowhere to be found. In this, Pearl sees not an annoyance but an opportunity. He fills the 10 minutes it takes for the balls to arrive with a rehearsal of the Tigers’ defensive sets and rotations. Afterward, he’s thrilled with himself for turning a 30-minute shootaround into a 42-minute practice, during which he revealed one of his favorite chestnuts: “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”
Pearl accepts that most of the well-documented adversity he has experienced in his professional life over the years has been self-imposed, just as he accepts—and the Auburn athletic department that employs him accepts—that the recruiting scandals in which he has been involved must be mentioned in any discussion of him that lasts more than a few minutes.
In the late 1980s, as an Iowa assistant, Pearl reported an Illinois assistant coach to the NCAA for recruiting violations, which were never proven true or punished. That ordeal damaged Pearl’s reputation among his coaching peers and effectively got him blackballed.
Twenty years later, after paying his dues, winning multiple championships in the Division II and mid-major ranks and landing the head coaching gig at Tennessee, Pearl committed violations of his own. He hosted a recruit at his home and asked the recruit (Aaron Craft, who would star at Ohio State) and others to lie about the visit. Then Pearl lied to investigators about it himself. When lesser violations surfaced, Tennessee fired Pearl in 2011, even as local fan polling showed overwhelming support for him. And not just because he’d taken the Vols to three Sweet 16s, either. The ebullient Boston native had ingratiated himself to the Knoxville community, raising awareness and money in the name of cancer prevention, and yelling himself hoarse (and famously painting his bare chest orange) in support of Tennessee’s womens’ athletics programs.
When Tennessee let him go, the Vols’ legendary womens hoops coach, Pat Summitt, did not equivocate: “We'll always be friends. I've really, really enjoyed being around Bruce.”
Three years of exile followed—although his generously compensated gig at ESPN hardly qualified him as an outcast. Auburn hired him five years ago this week. And yet Pearl’s rising program can’t seem to steer clear of controversy—even though Pearl says he had no knowledge of the misdeeds of former Auburn assistant Chuck Person (who pleaded guilty last week to accepting money from agents to steer players their way) or of the allegations against current assistant Ira Bowman (who was placed on leave a few days ago after being drawn into the investigation of an admissions scandal at Penn.)
These improprieties, and the men who allegedly perpetrated them, aren’t among Pearl’s priorities today. “Kansas is the priority,” he says as he eats lunch off a linen tablecloth at the Marriott. “Preparing these players is the priority.” All around him, club sandwiches on wheat are quietly consumed by the players he recruited with a promise, players who are riding a nine-game winning streak that includes a blistering run to the SEC tournament title:
Jared Harper is the Tigers’ unquestioned on-court leader, the point guard who resembles the Marlo Stanfield character from The Wire and has the same cold-blooded stare. Chuma Okeke is the sophomore starboy with the Grant Hill game and the brightest NBA future on the roster. Bryce Brown is the Tigers’ leading scorer, a slashing sharpshooter who instead of complaining about being under-recruited out of suburban Atlanta exacts his vengeance with his right elbow and wrist. Malik Dunbar is the off-court ringleader who has just started a boisterous game of tag with two teammates in the corner of the dining room.
This is not an uptight group. Their coach won’t allow it. When 6'11" Austin Wiley, who had to sit out last season after being connected in the Person matter before being reinstated, takes a seat next to Pearl and sips from a frothy, amber-colored beverage, the coach quips, “What kinda beer you got there?”
Wiley, caught off-guard for a second, relaxes, then smirks. “Green tea.”
After the players disperse to the film session next door, Pearl explains to a guest: “You have to stay calm, no matter the stakes. I don’t want to be any more amped-up today than I am for a D-II exhibition game in November. If you’re nervous, they can tell.”
Brown, the high-scoring senior two-guard, is the last player to arrive at the film session, as per usual. He’s never late, one staffer says, but he’s “dangerously on time, down to the second.” Which for most head coaches, means late. Not Pearl.
“Kansas is 23–1 at home and at neutral sites, and 3–8 on the road,” Pearl begins. “They have the same number of assists as turnovers. What do these things tell us?”
“They’re young,” Brown replies.
It’s one of four big takeaways from the 30-minute film session. The other three:
Dedric Lawson, the Jayhawks’ All Big 12 power forward, “is not athletic. Be physical with him, limit his touches, and when he does get it, show him lots of bodies.”
Also: “They will turn it over if we apply ball pressure.” (The Tigers cause turnovers on 25.2% of opponents’ possessions, best in the country.)
Lastly: “They don’t get back in transition,” Pearl says. "Rebound and run,” Pearl says, “that’s our best offense. Get it and go.”
To the next ballroom they go, where white tape has been affixed to the carpet to form a makeshift key. Walk-ons wearing the numbers of Kansas’s starters waltz under chandeliers, allowing the Tigers to work on defending inbounds plays and working through screens.
“Now go get off your feet.”
The elevators ding, and the players head to their rooms to watch Florida, a team they went 2–0 against this season, lose to Michigan.
Pregame meal is at 3:40. There are four hours until tipoff and the players are either hiding their nerves or not feeling any at all. Okeke steals Dunbar’s phone and scampers away. Harper demands that Dunbar retaliate with violence: “Fold him up!”
When the room empties, Clay Sanders, a Salt Lake City-based bus driver whose employer provides chauffeurs to the eight teams at this regional, boasts about his plum assignment. All week, his colleagues have had to wait in their parked buses, outside the arena, during practices and games. Pearl invited Sanders to Auburn’s practices and gave him tickets to their games. Good seats, too.
“When the other [drivers] drive their teams to dinner, they stay on the bus while the [players and coaches] eat.” The Tigers have eaten at Benihana the last two nights. (Pearl let the players choose.) When Sanders stayed on the bus the first night, Pearl looked at him quizzically. “What are you doing? Come with us. You’re part of this thing.”
“He has made an Auburn fan for life,” Sanders says.
Tipoff is less than two hours away and Sanders is steering his steel beast through downtown Salt Lake, carrying a team with no McDonald’s All-Americans on it to face a team whose roster boasts five. Snow-capped mountains fill the windows, every pane a painting. The only sound is Dunbar, in the back row, rapping “Toast Up” by Gunna, a capella.
N----s thinking that they tough
They don't wanna play with us …
They play with one of your partners, you gon' ride ain'tcha?
We gon' take it over, this our nation
Ten minutes to tip. Pearl finishes scribbling his game plan on the whiteboard in the locker room and turns to face the thirteen post-adolescents who have bought what he sold them. They sit rapt, hands in their laps.
“Get ready to run,” he tells them, the sandpaper returning to his voice. “Sprint like you stole something! They’re not good at getting back. Attack, attack …
“Passion. Let’s play harder than they do. … Trust each other and rely on each other. That’s the best thing we’ve got going in this locker room. That’s the thing that will take us the farthest in this tournament. Trust each other and rely on each other. … Our purpose is one thing and that’s to make history. It’s not about this one, it’s not about the next one, it’s not about the one after that. It’s about getting to the Final Four and trying to win a national championship. But we can’t get there unless we take care of business tonight. Bring it in.”
The players holler as they rise and join hands in an upraised pyramid. Pearl: “Together on three. One, two, three—
It’s over quick. The Jayhawks holds their only lead, 2–0, for exactly 18 seconds. Then the roof crumbles on them. Brown drains four threes in a three-minute span. Somewhere in there Okeke swats a shot by Lawson (his teammate on the College Park [Ga.] Rim Rockers, when they were 11 years old) and Harper sprints out of the pack like a thief. Guard Samir Doughty lofts a full-court outlet pass that the 5'10" Harper collects and dunks angrily. It’s 23–9 Auburn, and you can almost hear the TV executives groan.
Brown’s fifth three makes it 40–20. Anfernee McLemore, Auburn’s 6-foot-7 Swiss Army knife, draws a charge, just like Pearl predicted he would in the locker room. Harper sets his feet and draws one too. Pearl called that, as well. (Later, on the bus ride back to the Marriott, Auburn hoops coach emeritus, 82-year-old Sonny Smith, who recruited Charles Barkley to the Plains way back when, calls these first twenty minutes “the best half of basketball I’ve ever seen, and I coached for 47 years.”)
But Benihana two nights in a row can bring consequences, and Brown’s stomach knots up in the second half. He sits for a few minutes, wincing. No matter. When the final horn sounds he has 25 points, including seven threes, most of them in transition. Auburn wins by fourteen. Thirty-two of their 89 points come on the fast break.
“Sweet 16, boyyyyy!” Brown croons as he bursts into the locker room following his postgame interview junket. “Late as usual,” someone jokes.
Harper, the poker-faced point guard, is sitting at his locker, crediting the team’s preparation, their study of the Jayhawks’ players and their tendencies, for the win. He calls Brown, “the best shooter in the country, period.” Junior forward Danjel Purifoy, who also sat out last season before being cleared in the Person case, is sitting at his locker, texting his family. His voice cracks slightly as he says, “It’s been such a long journey.” He takes a deep breath, lifts his chin, and returns his thoughts to the game. “The film study and all that—man, we knew everything about them.”
Pearl concurs. “The things that we thought would work—worked.”
His voice is a mess again. He’s asked about returning to the Sweet 16 for the first time in nine years, since things went sideways in Knoxville. He shrugs and looks at his son Steven, the assistant coach he assigned two days earlier with the task of studying Kansas film until Steven’s eyes burned. Then Pearl looks at the players, who are beaming and dancing and removing the March Madness name plates from their lockers. “We prepared well,” Pearl says. Then he shrugs. He’s out of words and his larynx is shot.
“This is what I’m supposed to do.”