Here are a few tidbits from Auburn coach Bruce Pearl’s press conference at the Final Four Friday before his team plays Virginia tonight in the national semifinals.
Q. This is for Coach. It seems that the SEC has come a long way over the last few years. Now they’ve just added another successful coach in Buzz Williams. What can you say about the state of your league and how it helped you get to this point?
BRUCE PEARL: Well, I just hope our league doesn’t go to 20 league games, that’s all I can tell you. We’re at 18 right now, and that’s plenty. Mike Slive years ago was frustrated, I think, that the SEC was dominating in every sport, men and women, and men’s basketball was behind, and I think he really challenged his athletic directors and said why?
I mean, you look across the board — I don’t mind saying this — the SEC is the best conference in the country, and it’s not even close in all sports. That’s a big statement. But not in men’s basketball. The ACC has been really, really strong. You can make an argument for the Big Ten or the Big 12, but we’ve really closed the gap because of the depth and the breadth of our program, the quality of coaching, the commitment to our facilities. You used to go to a December game in the SEC, and there would be nobody there. That’s not the case anymore. Our fan base is traveling, they’re following us, and it’s because we have better players, better coaches, and a greater commitment.
Our league now is able to compete with any other conference in the country.
Q. Hey, Coach. What’s it like having Charles Barkley cheer you on the way he has been throughout the years, and especially during this NCAA Tournament? And how cool is it that you’ve got Barkley cheering on Auburn; you’ve got Magic Johnson, Michigan State; Ralph Sampson, Virginia, this Final Four?
BRUCE PEARL: It just tells you how this tournament transcends American life. The thing about Charles is he was cheering us on, supporting us, texting, calling, even in the years we weren’t very good, when I first got to Auburn. Like I don’t have more contact with Charles now than I did two or three years ago when we were struggling to just become a competitive program.
But I think it is cool for the nation to have their alums, their donors, their students being able to walk around loud and proud that their team is still playing for a National Championship.
Q. You’ve talked a lot about building the program and building tradition. How did you go about doing that at a place like Auburn which really didn’t have a huge basketball tradition or basketball expectations?
BRUCE PEARL: The number one thing you do — and you used the word. The number one thing you do is you raise the expectation level of your players. When I have inherited different programs at different places along the way, their expectation was not to be able to compete for a conference championship. And when I say “compete for a conference championship,” that means being in the upper division. So it’s not like I came to Auburn and said we’re going to win championships. I came to Auburn and said we’re going to be relevant, and we’re going to compete for championship, which means just getting to the upper division.
And I had to raise the bar and get my kids to understand, okay, now, what do we need to do to put ourselves in position to attain that kind of a goal?
And then you do it like with everything else. When I was in Division II at Southern Indiana, I had come from the University of Iowa. I knew how we had done it in the Big Ten, and I brought that same mentality to Division II as best I possibly could, in the way we treated our student-athletes, in the way we trained our student-athletes. Our kids weren’t getting any coaching or any training that was less than what they received at Iowa, and I don’t want our kids at Auburn to be able to receive the kind of coaching or training that’s any less than any of the best programs in the country.
And we’ve proven that our kids can come to Auburn, get better, and play for championships.