Make a list of the most irrelevant power-conference programs of the past decade, and it wouldn't be long before Auburn came up.
The Tigers haven't finished with a winning record since 2009, haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2003 and haven't produced an NBA draft pick since 2001. That's a pretty remarkable stretch of futility considering how mediocre the SEC has been recently.
Auburn's basketball stature could increase dramatically in the coming years, however, thanks to the splashy hire the school announced Tuesday morning. Highly successful former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl will make his return to coaching after serving a three-year NCAA-mandated penalty by replacing recently fired Tony Barbee as the new coach of the Tigers.
Pearl is a great fit for Auburn because he has already proven he can energize the basketball program at a school whose first priority will always be football. In six season in Knoxville, Pearl led Tennessee to six straight NCAA tournaments, ascending to No. 1 in the nation briefly in 2008 and reaching the Elite Eight in 2010.
The turnaround probably won't be as quick under Pearl at Auburn as it was at Tennessee when he inherited standout players Chris Lofton, C.J. Watson and Major Wingate. The potential for long-term success might be even greater, however, with a sparkling new arena to recruit to and a league overrun with mediocrity aside from Florida and Kentucky.
Of course the risk of hiring Pearl is that he surely will be in the NCAA's crosshairs. Tennessee fired Pearl in March 2011 after it became clear that he committed a recruiting violation by having recruits at his house for a barbecue, lied to investigators about it and encouraged his staff to lie about it as well.
Pearl has been humbled by his firing and his subsequent three-year show-cause penalty and is unlikely to make the same mistake again. Furthermore any risk associated with Pearl is clearly worthwhile for an Auburn program with nothing to lose.
For years, Auburn basketball has barely resonated in its own state, let alone nationally. With Pearl on board, all eyes may soon be on the Tigers.
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