JOHN L. PITTS: A Pearl of a hire on the Plains

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

As much fun as it is for folks to gloat about the success of the SEC in the NCAA men’s tournament, I think Bruce Pearl’s return means more.

Auburn’s hiring of the former Tennessee coach works on several levels, none more important than the fact that the guy is a proven winner at this level.

Pearl won a (Division II) national championship at Southern Indiana, then led Milwaukee and Tennessee to Sweet 16 appearances.

Most strikingly, he’s won 74 percent of his conference games along the way – a good measure of success against teams with similar situations.

Contrast Pearl with some SEC hires where coaches won at one level but struggled after stepping up. I think of Stan Heath, who led Kent State to 30 wins and the Elite Eight in his only season there, then stumbled through stops at Arkansas and South Florida.

Pearl replaces a coach, Tony Barbee, who had some success at UTEP before finding it’s a lot harder to hit the pitching in the big leagues.

Auburn’s move quickly turned up the heat on state rival Alabama, which decided to bring back head coach Anthony Grant after the worst (13-19) of his five seasons in Tuscaloosa.

And it sends a signal that Auburn, which hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2003, is prepared to be a serious player again.

For the SEC, better coaches will equal better basketball.

Pearl is a larger-than-life character, which plays well on the national stage. But everywhere he’s gone, he’s made a point of respecting the situation – a skill that eludes a lot of egotistical coaches.

At Tennessee, he was the first coach to really embrace the success of a Lady Vols women’s program that other coaches tried to fight. Remember him with his chest painted orange in the fan section at a Tennessee women’s game?

(Sorry, maybe you’d been trying to forget that.)

Yes, Pearl ran afoul of the NCAA in Knoxville by lying about what should have been a fairly minor rules infraction. We have to accept the notion that no coach in the league will be more scrutinized to make sure he runs things on the up-and-up.

Or, some skeptical rival fans might say, now that he’s at Auburn they can show him the right way to cheat.

Random thoughts

• Food trucks are a big thing. I think I’ll start a news truck. “Whaddya want?” “I’ll take an update on Crimea. And a burrito.”

• I was excited when I heard Phil Jackson was named president. I was somewhat less excited when I heard it was president of the Knicks.

• I think Elvis called me the other day. He asked if something was going to be in the paper, then said “ThankYouVeryMuch.”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts