Bruce Pearl, with hands planted on his hips, wrinkles his nose, mouth set in a deep frown and shakes his head vigorously from side to side.
That one action from Auburn’s bench Sunday — complete with some trademark dark sweat stains saturating the coach’s blue shirt — captured fans’ attention, thanks to its meme-worthy status. But that emotional high energy, which has led the Tigers to Minneapolis this weekend for their first Final Four, isn’t just for show.
“Come to practice, and that’s exactly what it is, or come watch me before a Division II exhibition game,” said Pearl, whose first head coaching job was at Division II Southern Indiana from 1992-2001. “When the clock starts, and the game is on, and we’re practicing or playing, that’s who I am. The buzzer sounds, and … it shuts down. But for 40 minutes or however long we’re going to go, it’s going to be intense.”
His players call him an animated, great leader who works to make them better men as well as basketball players. Pearl admitted he can be a bit tough on his roster, but his son and assistant coach Steven Pearl often tells the players to listen to what the coach is saying, not how he’s saying it.
“I appreciate the passion he has for the program and sticking with us through the ups and downs,” junior forward Anfernee McLemore said. “Every day he gives it his all, no matter what, and drives us to put more effort on the floor.”
Those “ups and downs” haven’t been small bumps along the way, either. The adversity has been everything from McLemore’s own season-ending injury in February last season to sophomore forward Chuma Okeke’s torn ACL in the Sweet 16 this year, to two assistant coaches embroiled in bribery scandals, to two players having to sit out last season because of that FBI investigation.
Pearl has his own recruiting scandals, from trying to expose Illinois for offering incentives to a recruit when he was an assistant at Iowa, to lying to the NCAA about having a recruit at his house for a barbecue when he coached Tennessee. The latter earned him basically a three-year ban from the sport until he came to Auburn in 2014.
“Just seeing my coach in the headlines a lot of the time, I used to just text him like, ‘Man, coach, I hope we get through this. Just have our team’s back,” senior guard Bryce Brown said. “… My lowest point was the investigation, I feel like, last year because we didn’t know if we were going to have our coach. That was the toughest part.”
Despite all that, Pearl insists college basketball is not a “cesspool” and chooses to not focus on the few “inappropriate” actions when there is so much good. The good is no easier to find than his current Tigers team, which exceeded Pearl’s own expectations from making Auburn “competitive, perhaps relevant in college basketball” to become an NCAA tournament semifinalist.
Players also maintain the team is as close as family, one that has overcome odds — one steal and three-pointer at a time — to stand just two games from Auburn’s first national championship.
“I feel like, truly, that’s why we make a lot of our shots, because if you think about it, in a lot of Power Five conferences, coaches don’t give their players the freedom that our coach gives us,” Brown said. “When your coach has that type of confidence in you and believes in you that you can make any shot, that gives you confidence as a player.”
The polarizing Pearl has his fans and his critics. But when Auburn faces Virginia on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium — and maybe even Michigan State or Texas Tech in the final Monday — keep an eye on him on the sideline. Because whether liked or not, the coach will undoubtedly pique interest.
“Yeah,” Pearl said, “I guess I kind of let it all hang out.”