Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, players Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, at Final Four
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined right now by the head coach of the Auburn Tigers, Bruce Pearl. We’ll ask Coach Pearl to give us a couple of thoughts, an opening statement, and then we’ll take questions for Coach.
BRUCE PEARL: I’m really glad we’re playing tomorrow, not today, because yesterday between practice and 30 hours of media, we’re exhausted. But we’ll get our batteries charged today and go about preparing for a great opponent in Virginia.
Again, we’re humbled, we’re blessed, we’re honored to still be playing. We’ve completely trusted God and the way He’s delivered for this team. We feel blessed, and those that are blessed are blessed so that they can bless. So that’s what our plan is.
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. How about just in terms of Sampson and Magic? You’ve got three Hall of Famers basically cheering on 3 of the 4 teams.
BRUCE PEARL: And there’s bragging rights at stake. You know, the fact that on the set at CBS, you know, it was Auburn against North Carolina. It was Charles Barkley against Kenny Smith. And part of beating Carolina and the history and tradition and that blue blood, if you would, was having Charles Barkley from Leeds, Alabama, who went to Auburn, you know, not one of the bigger schools, and to have his team, it was sweet.
Q. Your first time at the Final Four. Can you just describe the experience being here for the first time? What do you think it means for Auburn as a whole?
BRUCE PEARL: One of the things that I’ve been doing in answering that question is reminding that, while this may be my first Final Four and the Big Dance, in 1994 we lost in a National Championship Game to Cal State Bakersfield, and then in ’95 we won the National Championship against Cal State Riverside. So this is actually the third time I’ve been there.
The only reason I say that is not to correct you, but to give credit to the Division II programs and the other championships. There is no bigger stage, and I’m just excited for my players because they — I mean, they’re walking around with their jaw dropped the whole time. Every time you turn the corner, you see another sign or another picture or another — you know, they just can’t — they’ve got to be pinching themselves, and I think so is this 59-year-old guy.
The lesson for me is simply what a great country we live in, that coaches like myself or Chris Beard, who came up differently than others — but anybody could — you can get here. If I can get here, anybody can get here. So I think it gives hope that this land is a land of tremendous opportunity.
And as far as Auburn is concerned, Auburn is one of the finest public institutions in the southern part of the country. I mean, it’s a destination place for people in the South. We’ve got phenomenal programs nationally ranked in many things, and all this is going to do is bring some more, I think, credibility. And Auburn’s a great college town, and I think that the kids that go to Auburn want to be in that environment. It’s a very, very special place, and I think more people are going to visit it now because of Auburn being in the Final Four.
Q. Bruce, Coach Pearl, in 1994-95, you were able to win the National Championship with USI. How are you trying to relate that success and try to teach — obviously, different teams, but how are you looking at that success and trying to relay it to your guys in the locker room?
BRUCE PEARL: I’m sure my players know the history. I’ve not talked to them at all about it. What I’ve tried to do is treat this as the — as another regional, in a sense. When we were in Kansas City, it was a four-team tournament. It was North Carolina and Auburn, and it was Kentucky and Houston. The weekend before in Salt Lake, it was New Mexico State and Auburn, Northeastern and Kansas. This is another four-team tournament just like those other two.
So we’re not trying to change anything about our routine, about our preparation. And so therefore, the fact that we maybe won it in ’95 and played for it in ’94, that wouldn’t be something I would have talked to them about weeks ago, and it’s not something I’m going to focus on now.
One of these four teams is going to survive this weekend, and the prize is the National Championship. We’d like for it to be Auburn.
Q. Coach, just kind of building off what you’ve been talking about, not only just this weekend, but back home on campus and things, your players are talking about how students are stopping them for photos and teachers are giving them attention and things that maybe they hadn’t experienced at this program before. How do you think they have handled maybe stepping out of football’s shadow a little bit and being really the big men on campus again?
BRUCE PEARL: One of the things I’ve asked the players to do is not take advantage of the situation in the sense that we were in class Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I think, yeah, it was easier to go to class because they knew they were probably going to get a pat on the back. But at the same time, you could understand maybe a professor going, well, I can understand why. They just got back late last night. They leave in a day or two. No, get your assignments in. You would hope that maybe some of the teachers would understand there’s a lot going on right now, but how impressive would it be that you’re still able to get your work done? You’re a student first. So the first lesson is don’t take advantage of it.
I think the second lesson for me is, when I got to Auburn, our basketball program, our athletes may have been recognized as athletes, but they didn’t wear a lot of Auburn basketball gear because it wasn’t — we weren’t holding up our end. And so I’m glad now that our men’s basketball players can join the other athletes like the football team, like the softball team, like the soccer team, like the baseball team, like the equestrian national championship team, the golfers and the tennis players and guys and gals in the pool, because now, like them, we are competitive. We are champions.
So I don’t look at it as our guys are big men on campus. I look at it as our guys now have a right to fit in to the rest of the campus.
Q. Bruce, about Virginia, what did you think last year when you saw that they lost to a No. 16 seed? And what do you think about the way they handled it?
BRUCE PEARL: Adversity, it reveals character, it doesn’t build it. Like adversity doesn’t build character. Adversity is really hard to go through. So therefore, when you’re going through something really hard, your character gets revealed, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here.
They accepted, and they were accountable, and they went about their business to try and see if they could be good again.
I mean, it’s easy to get something going. It’s harder to keep it going. Like last year Auburn won its third ever regular season championship in men’s basketball. Third time. 1960, 1999, and last year. I’m not talking about this year.
We didn’t celebrate that success. We talked about the fact that at the end of the year we had unfinished business because we lost in the second round of the tournament. Like Virginia, our kids said, you know what, we got to — we can’t lose this opportunity again. Virginia had an opportunity a year ago as a No. 1 seed, didn’t take advantage of it.
The way to advance in the tournament is to be a higher seed, a better seed. They’ve corrected that. Whatever it was they had to do, I don’t know, but they’ve corrected it, and it’s a great story.
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.
Q. Bruce, I’m curious how your experience at Southern Indiana, Division II school, kind of molded and shaped you as the coach you are today?
BRUCE PEARL: I would just say this. If you talk to any coach today, ask them the question along the way, because we all have experiences at lots of different levels. Some of the best coaches in the country are not in Division I. That’s not a knock on any of the Division I coaches, okay? It’s just that we all have respect for Division I college coaches, or Division III, Division II. I cut my teeth there. I was challenged there and had an opportunity to survive and to win enough and to be successful enough to be able to keep a job and grow in the profession. So it got me ready.
Q. Jared was talking in the breakout room that he’s a little sick. Is that going to be a concern for you or for Jared?
BRUCE PEARL: Jared is under the weather. Bryce is also. We’ve got a bunch of guys that are sniffling and hacking and coughing, but we don’t play today. Jared would be — he would be less than 100 percent if we had to play today. If we played yesterday, Bryce would have been less than 100 percent. He’ll be fine tomorrow.
THE MODERATOR: With that, we’re joined by student-athletes from Auburn, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Jared, do you want to tell us how you’re feeling?
JARED HARPER: Just a little bit under the weather. I’m a little sick, but it’s not going to stop me from continuing to prepare for this game. This is a big moment for us as a team and us as a program. So I know I’m going to be ready.
Q. Hi, Coach, congratulations. I’ve spoken to a lot of the players in the locker room, and they said that faith has been interwoven into the fabric of your coaching style. I’d like to ask you how significant has that been? Just battling through injuries, everything that you’ve had to deal with this season and last season, how has faith been pronounced in the coaching program?
BRUCE PEARL: Could you ask that one more time? I heard a lot but not all of it.
Q. A lot of the players in the program said that faith has been interwoven into your coaching style. How significant has that been getting back here and making history for your school?
BRUCE PEARL: I think that with faith and style — these guys want to make history. They came to Auburn at a time when the program was not competitive and relevant, and we said, listen, if we do this together and we all push each other, trust each other, bring the best out in each other, we have a chance to make history.
So when we looked at the road to the Final Four and we saw, with the exception of maybe Oregon, there wasn’t a stronger 12 than New Mexico State, I told the guys, I promise you, this first one is going to be as tough as any one that we go through, and it was.
But to have a chance to then have to go through Kansas and North Carolina and Kentucky and now Virginia, the only 1 seed left, if we’re truly trying to make history as part of our fate — you know, sometimes there’s fate, and other times there’s opportunity, and God’s put this opportunity before us, and we’re going to do the best we possibly can to take advantage of this opportunity. That may mean winning. It may mean losing, but we’re going to take advantage of this opportunity.
Q. This is for Bryce. I was talking to Steven Pearl in the locker room about your maturation and how much you’ve grown as a leader during your time at Auburn, and he said the Division II loss to Barry last year was really where it snapped in the right way for you. Is there anything you can recount from that and how have you grown since then do you think?
BRYCE BROWN: Really I felt like I wasn’t heading down the right path to be able to change the program, and that’s part of what I wanted to do when I got here, help change the program. I just wanted to have this be the time for me to be a leader on the team, and it was time to start growing up.
Something about that just made it hit the light for me and kind of did turn on the switch, just because I had to start growing up, and things had to change if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to as an individual or if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to as a team. I knew I had to change for the good.
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. Bruce, we talked about the three-point shooting a little yesterday. When you face Virginia, do you have to give the guys even more of a green light to shoot contested threes because of the nature of their defense? And how confident are you with these guys knocking it down with a hand in their face?
BRUCE PEARL: One of the fortunate things is these guys have never heard like we’ve got to get it on the second side and the third side, which a lot of coaches and commentators talk. I have no idea what side they’re talking about. If he has the ball on the first side and he’s open, he’d better shoot it, and so better he and a couple of other guys in that locker room because you might not get another open shot.
So if you’re going to take a contested shot, it’s probably going to be later in the clock. If it’s late in the clock, we’d better make that one, or if we don’t make it, we’d better get somebody on the team to rebound it and get the next possession.
So our guys understand Virginia’s length. I think they understand that Virginia is probably the most efficient team in college basketball because they’re like in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But they also have confidence in each other, and they also have confidence in what we do. We’re going to get some open looks. We’re going to get some open looks, and we’d better knock them down.
Q. This is for both Jared and Bryce. I know your fathers are always around the team and the program with you guys shooting in the gym or the locker room. What does it mean where Bruce has fostered that environment that your dads can still be part of your career even though you’re in college now?
JARED HARPER: I would just say that my dad has been a part of my life my entire life. He’s always just helped me and strived me to be a good player and just to have — BP has his son, Coach Steve, a part of the program. I feel like I’ve seen before a father-son program. Coach Flan’s son is going to be at the school next year. So it’s just a great environment to be around.
BRYCE BROWN: Same. I really appreciate Coach Pearl for allowing my dad to be so interactive with the program and be able to come down here and help not only prepare me for this but help coach me as well. He allows my dad to have a little input on how I play and the things I do.
You know, that just goes with having a good coach that trusts me, trusts my father, and know that he’s going to put me in the right situation to succeed. So, yeah, that’s how I feel about that.
THE MODERATOR: We do have time for one final question, if there is one, for Bryce or Jared or Coach Pearl.
Q. When you have to win two games to win it all, is it any challenge not to think ahead?
BRYCE BROWN: I can say it is pretty tough. We all want to win a National Championship. That’s the goal. But I definitely feel like you have to take it one game at a time because Virginia is favored in a lot of their games, and we want to be a part of making history.
So taking it one game at a time is definitely key. The light at the end of the tunnel we are starting to see, and if we’re able to get over this game, it would definitely help things. It’s just given us confidence the more and more we win, the more and more we win together, and the more we succeed.