AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — New Auburn coach Bruce Pearl wasted no time making an impression— and some bold promises.
The former Tennessee coach sprung for pizza for several hundred students Tuesday a few hours after arriving in town, some of whom took selfies posing next to him. Then he told a couple thousand fans at Auburn Arena: "We will play for championships."
"We're fixing to get Auburn into that position where we'll be going to the NCAA tournament," he said, adding that he wanted to be the winningest coach in program history. Before stepping away from the podium, he proclaimed: "I'm baack." Then Auburn fans sang Happy Birthday to Pearl, who turned 54 on Tuesday and suggested they celebrate at the NCAA tournament next year.
The Tigers turned to Pearl to revive a struggling basketball program that hasn't made that field since 2003, causing quite a splash in a football-mad state. Athletic director Jay Jacobs landed his top target with a 6-year deal starting at $2.2 million annually, less than a week after firing Tony Barbee. They first spoke at the ESPN studio where Pearl had been working last Friday night.
Pearl will receive $100,000 raise each year and will owe Auburn $5 million if he leaves in the next two years, Jacobs said. It made the $2,100 tab for pizza easy to swallow. Pearl remains under a show-cause penalty from the NCAA barring him from recruiting until Aug. 23. Auburn has 30 days to accept or contest the penalty, and Jacobs said the school hasn't decided how to handle that yet.
Pearl had plenty of success on the court, taking Tennessee to the NCAA tournament in each of his six seasons before getting fired in March 2011 in the wake of an NCAA investigation. Jacobs said he believes Pearl "has learned from his mistake." Pearl repeatedly talked about getting this second chance, and said he had heard from "a few schools" but was prepared to have to wait until after the show-cause expired to land a job.
"I would not have gone this year had I not felt this was the right opportunity," Pearl said. "I was prepared to not coach this year." Pearl was greeted by 100-plus fans when he landed at the airport in Auburn. He jumped into a mosh pit of fans.
"I want this same reception when we come back with an SEC championship," he told them. Pearl charmed them again with football coach Gus Malzahn and two assistants — Tony Jones and son Steven Pearl — watching from the front row.
Jacobs said with the move "we have raised the bar for Auburn basketball." He addressed the off-the-court issues in an open letter posted on the school's Web site and again later, saying he wouldn't have hired Pearl if he didn't think the coach was remorseful.
"After looking at the case and talking to Coach Pearl face to face, I am convinced without a doubt that he has learned from his mistake," Jacobs wrote. "I've thought about this a great deal, and obviously so has Coach Pearl. I believe people who are genuine and sincere deserve second chances. If I did not believe Coach Pearl's apologies were sincere and heartfelt, I would not have even considered him."
Pearl was cited for unethical conduct for lying to investigators in June 2010 about improperly hosting recruits at his home. He was placed under a three-year show-cause penalty He also was found to have interfered with the NCAA's investigation after he contacted a recruit's father who had also been interviewed by investigators.
Two months after his initial interview, he met again with NCAA investigators to tell them he had misled them. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who Pearl describes as a friend, said he trusts that Auburn did "its due diligence throughout the hiring process."
"I was disappointed in the actions of coach Pearl that led to his suspension and ultimate dismissal, but he will soon complete the requirements of his NCAA penalties," Slive said. "I have every expectation that he has learned his lesson and will run Auburn's basketball program in accordance with these expectations."
Auburn hired former NCAA director of enforcement David Didion as an associate athletic director for compliance in April 2013. Pearl, who is 231-99 in Division I, has been working in private business in Knoxville, Tenn., and for ESPN. He has led eight of his 10 Division I teams to the NCAA tournament, including twice in four seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and led Division II Southern Indiana to a national title in 1995.
Pearl led the Volunteers to the Sweet Sixteen four times and they made the Elite Eight in 2010. Pearl inherited a Tennessee team that went 14-17 and lost its top two scorers, and took the Vols to a 22-8 record in his debut season, 2005-06.
Only North Carolina's Roy Williams reached 300 career wins faster among NCAA coaches. The last seven Auburn coaches have left with losing marks in the league, dating back to the Joel Eaves era from 1949-63. Pearl takes over a team that went 14-16 and loses three starters, including leading scorer Chris Denson.
That didn't take away from his joy of being "baack." "I'm truly humbled and I'm blessed to have this opportunity," Pearl said. "It's been a long three years being away from the game. One of the things that I just want to tell you is as a coach and even as a father, when I made the mistakes I made at Tennessee, I let a lot of people down.
"That's why I still walk around with pain."