Press Conference: Auburn coach Bruce Pearl at the 2019 Final Four
BRUCE PEARL: We very excited about being at the Final Four, very excited to represent Auburn. We’ve got great respect for the teams that are here, and our motto, our kids had talked about at the end of last season was unfinished business.
We had just finished up our third all-time regular season championship in the SEC. We won our first round game, and yet the kids felt like we could do more.
So after a championship season, they talked about unfinished business, and what that unfinished business was was advancing in the tournament. So they’ve accomplished that. I’m very proud of them.
Q. Obviously, you’re playing for more than just Auburn. The tornado and all that went into it and dedicating the season to and going and visiting the elementary school and talking to them, how did that change the way you felt about your mission, and explain what that did for your team.
BRUCE PEARL: Yeah, at a time when we were going through postseason play, that storm blew through Lee County. The heart of the storm hit about seven miles from my doorstep, kind of like behind my house. We were actually in practice that day, and we heard sirens, and, of course, when the devastation was unfolding and incredible loss of life, the entire community was shaken.
So what do you do? So we all went to the store and bought water and brought it to the different facilities, and diapers and things like that. We did that. But my message was we’re here now. And, yes, we took our team — when the kids came back to school, a couple of students, their desks were empty, and there were some classmates that had to go through some real counseling and things like that, and we wanted to help that process. I’m staying in touch now with some of the teachers there. We’ve made some friends. And as soon as this is over, we’re going to go back.
And my message is not — look, after the storm, everyone is going to come running to help. It’s going to take months, it’s going to take years to rebuild. We’ll never replace the loss of life, but my message is let’s not forget about that storm. Thanks for asking because we need to rebuild the community, and it’s going to take a lot longer and a lot more than just water and diapers.
Q. Bruce, Bryce talks a lot about old Bryce, new Bryce, or old/young, I guess, maybe is a better way to describe it. What are the differences between him?
BRUCE PEARL: Oh, man, that’s a great question. So Bryce is a great kid from a great family who came to Auburn a little spoiled and immature, but one thing that he always had — and I think this is important when you’re dealing with somebody that can be unreasonable — is he recognized that he had those challenges.
His family helped him recognize, Bryce, you need to accept the coaching. You need to — in order to get better and learn. And to Bryce’s credit, he understood that.
So, yes, he is a better man. He’s a much better basketball player. His work ethic was never in question. His desire to win never in question, but how he would go about it. He’s a better man, and he’s a better player because he was accountable and he accepted the coaching.
Q. Bruce, I just wanted to ask about the guys at the end of your bench that don’t really get the notoriety, are your walk-ons. What have they meant to your program, and what do they bring to your program on a day-to-day basis?
BRUCE PEARL: The walk-ons? The non-scholarship players are in the same locker room with the scholarship players. They eat the same food. They wear the same uniform. I was able to walk on and walk off at Boston College real quickly because I wasn’t good enough to make the team, but Tom Davis saw something in me as a student, where he wanted me to continue to be involved in his organization at Boston College. I treat the non-scholarship players as badly as I treat the rest of them.
Two of our non-scholarship players got scholarships this year, and what an unbelievable blessing that was for them and their family. You want to try to create situations in practice that are challenging. I don’t know why in men’s basketball we have 13 scholarships and in women’s basketball they have 15. We play the same sport.
Last year when we were going to play Clemson in the round of 32, I had seven scholarship players. Yes, we had two players that were ineligible from mistakes that were made, I get that, but still, a lot of times at the end of the season, you don’t have enough bodies. They’re an important part of the team, and they’re held accountable just like the rest of the guys, and they make us better every day.
Q. Bruce, I was talking to Malik Dunbar’s teammates and obviously through the postseason about just how funny he is and how his positive attitude has helped lift them through some tough times, whether it’s Chuma’s injury or even that near loss to New Mexico State in the opener. How important is it for Malik to be in that locker room as much as it is on the court?
BRUCE PEARL: Everybody gets ready for games differently. Believe it or not, I’m actually quiet. Malik is loud. I think my job is to let them be themselves and not try to have them be something that they’re not. As long as their energy is in a positive way. So Malik keeps us light, and he keeps us lively.
To Malik’s credit, he’d love to be getting the same shots Bryce Brown is getting, but he’s not. He doesn’t have that role, and the key to our team is we don’t — you know, we’re blessed to be where we’re at, and so I’ve told our guys, look to your left and look to your right and recognize that, without that guy there and that guy there, you’re not here. We don’t all have to be Bryce Brown. We can’t all be Jared Harper, but without Malik Dunbar, we’re not here doing what he does.
So partly is understanding his role, trying to do more without trying to do too much, and yet keep that same effort and energy.
Q. Bruce, obviously, a lot of people call this a surprising run. A couple years ago when the FBI investigation affected an assistant coach, a couple of players, how concerned were you that the drama would affect your program to the point where you wouldn’t be able to make a run like this because it wouldn’t affect you in your tenure?
BRUCE PEARL: First of all, as you go through these processes, it was difficult, but I knew what I knew, and I knew all that I didn’t know. So therefore, I was comfortable that if we stayed the course, that we were going to be fine. There were several people — and I may even have had a conversation with some of you and said just trust me on this one. I’m going to be okay in this. That doesn’t make what happened right, and certainly there have been severe penalties, both people in coaching as well as student-athletes.
Our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like that, and when we don’t do our job, there are consequences. But I didn’t think it was going to disrupt our program because I knew what I knew and I knew what I didn’t know.
Q. Bruce, I’m curious, I was talking to Damon Davis, just kind of about his — kind of looking at analytics and also being a strength coach, now he kind of mixes the two. How have you kind of adopted what he’s brought and maybe the vert belt they’re wearing and all of that?
BRUCE PEARL: Everybody has a role to play, from our nutritionist, to our trainer, to our strength and conditioning guy, and you want to be successful in this business, you’d better have a good one and you’d better listen to him. We spend a lot of time talking about what our off-season is going to look like, what our summer is going to look like. He knows what we’re going to have a strenuous practice and when we’re going to go light. He knows the seasons to push strength and power and to push conditioning and rest.
So working together is important, but also I think just, look, letting your experts be experts. In other words, I’m not going to teach the kids how to shoot. I’m going to let Marques Daniels or Ira Bowman or Wes Flanigan do that. Steven Pearl is not going to teach them how to shoot, but if you want to learn how to rebound and learn how to defend and learn my system, Steven would be a great guy to go to.
In other words, take the guys, put them in their positions to be successful, have them go to their go-to moves as coaches, as staff, just like with players.
Q. From an Xs and Os standpoint, obviously, you guys are most comfortable running the floor. What are the keys to executing against the pack line when you are set in the half-court?
BRUCE PEARL: You know, it’s — call it — the pack line is the right way to call it. They put good pressure on the ball, but they also pack that three-point line, and they just don’t let you get clean looks off. They’ve got great length. They know when to jump out and hedge, and they know when to zone.
Obviously, they’re extremely well coached. They build a wall, and they just don’t let you see over it. Their greatest strength as a defense is our greatest strength as an offense.
Also, trying to guard them. We try to turn people over. We turn people over almost 25 percent of a possession. They don’t turn over by nine times in a game, and the more you try to turn them over, the better you make their offense. So the challenge for me is do we do what got us here, or do we play them the way you need to play them in order to be able to contain that system? So from that standpoint, it’s obviously a touch matchup.
Q. Can you talk about the adjustment to playing a basketball game in a football stadium plus the importance of trying to get the tempo the way you want to play on Saturday night?
BRUCE PEARL: I think we were here this morning and shot, got a lot of shots, and the sight lines are really good. I’ve been in some bigger domes as a fan, and it doesn’t seem like — it doesn’t seem as big. So the guys are — the guys got lots of shots, and this should not be a factor. The rims are soft. I think the shooting percentages will be good.
And as far as tempo is concerned, I just don’t think we can make Virginia play faster than they play. Because the rule changes, trapping has virtually been taken out of the game. Full court, 94-foot defense is a thing of the past. So we’ve got to be able to try to make them go faster in the half-court, and when you make that offense go faster, you extend, you break down, and you have whatever you want.
So I don’t think we’re going to be able to change the tempo of this game. We’re most likely, if we’re going to win, beat Virginia at their own pace.
Q. This is neither here nor there, but I think you have 13 scholarships and women have 15 because you have 85 football scholarships, but that’s a topic for another day. My question is there was a story in USA Today earlier this week about the bonuses coaches receive for getting to the Final Four, and whenever we talk about paying players, there’s a visceral reaction to actually handing them cash. Would you be in favor of any type of system where money is pooled so the players could draw from it while they’re students and maybe even after they’ve graduated or finished their eligibility?
BRUCE PEARL: I think we’ve made a lot of progress about creating a more realistic scholarship because the cost of attendance. We’ve made a lot of progress in that area. It’s very difficult to value a college basketball player that’s playing in the Final Four or a quarterback that’s playing on an SEC team and a cross country runner or somebody that’s involved in a non-revenue sport. They’re both student-athletes.
One of the things I love about Auburn is our student-athletes eat in the same place, they train the same areas. We recognize how hard all student-athletes have to work. In fact, I was talking to the football team the other day, and I said, One of the things I admire about you guys as much as anything on this campus — they could be intimidating. They’re bigger, stronger, tougher than anybody else — they go to gymnastics meets. They recognize those gymnastics girls work as hard as they do or maybe even harder. It’s such a cool thing. And I complimented our football team for their leadership about not being — they could be bullies, and they’re not.
That said, we have to be able to understand the money’s changed in the last 20 years. I’m glad we’ve got a realistic scholarship. One thing I’d like to see them — and listen, the system’s not broke. I knew Zion Williamson when he was a really good high school player in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and whatever his value was a year ago, it’s a lot more now having spent a year at Duke. That system’s not broke.
I have taken teams to the NCAA Tournament, and families could not afford to go to see their kids play. That’s changed now. Our parents got to go to the Final Four. Money was put there. These things weren’t happening before.
So because of efforts through folks like yourself that are encouraging, we should continue to make it, have them benefit more, these things are happening.
And lastly, would I love to see a way for there to be some sort of annuity, some sort of a, look, the longer you stay, the more you would earn towards an annuity. Graduate, do these things, and it’s like — it’s like, for me, if I invest in an annuity and I save that and keep it there, it builds over a period of time, and then maybe even saying, okay, and we may not give it to you. We may give you some when you graduate, but you know what, we’re going to help you invest. I don’t have all the answers. But those are the things I think we should talk about.
Q. Coach, I just got done talking with Horace and Samir, just how they grew up in Philly and there was a little rougher style of play. Do you see that as a negative or getting into foul trouble or more as a positive and their just gritty style of play?
BRUCE PEARL: You mean my Philly guys were trying to play like they were tough guys too? Really? It’s called that Philly swag. I’m proud that they’re proud of where they come from, and they recognize that had not been for a bunch of people, coaches, teachers, ministers, they wouldn’t be sitting on this stage right now because of where they come from. I think they also recognize it’s a blessing to be in a place like Auburn and a real safe, wonderful, nurturing community.
So, yeah, maybe they are a little tougher because of where they come from, but I think they’re also really grateful.
Q. Some of your guards were talking about Wes Flanigan and what he had meant to their games and to them over the course of this season. Just talk about the decision to hire him and what he’s meant to your program.
BRUCE PEARL: You surround yourself with people better than you. Wes was a head coach. He was an assistant for Chris Beard. He was a great player, one of the all-time better point guards to ever play at Auburn. Loves Auburn. Always an Auburn man, even though he grew up in Arkansas. His dad, a legendary high school coach. I mean, he’s got all the makings, all the pedigree. He understands the profession as a player, as a son. We’re a father-son program. My son coaches with me. Wes Flanigan’s son is going to come play for us next year. Jared Harper’s best coach is his dad, Pat Harper. Cedric Brown is Bryce Brown’s shooting coach. These dads are in my gym.
It’s not like when they come to college, I say, okay, here’s the baton. You got this now. Stay away. That’s not who they are. I hired a great father. I hired a great man. And that’s what I look for. Wes provides some toughness. He could challenge Jared’s thinking as a point guard differently than I could. So once again, I think it’s about getting different pieces, putting them together, having them go to their strengths. And Wes, being a little bit older, he doesn’t need any of my discipline. He carries his own.
Q. Bruce, how did you get your team to go from the devastation of Chuma’s injury on Friday to playing the way that they did on Sunday? And what was it like to leave Chuma in Auburn when you came up here, knowing he’s such a big part of your team but not here for it?
BRUCE PEARL: I think the benefit was the fact that we played 36 hours later, and we truly didn’t have enough time to think about what we had lost. Does the idea of a little bit more Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Horace Spencer, and Danjel Purifoy, does that sound good? I think the answer is any of those guys does sound good. You don’t talk about we’re going to lose 32 minutes of my most valuable player. That’s not where you go. More of those guys is a good thing. So let’s take advantage of more of those guys, what are the things they do. It’s all about trusting each other. It’s all about relying on each other. Those guys are ready to respond. They’re different than Chuma, but I think they’re ready to respond.
Tom Davis always taught me that the time to shorten your bench or narrow your bench is not in the postseason. That’s where your bench is your advantage. We played nine or ten guys in double digits, and I think that’s a reason why this team isn’t fatigued this late in the season. We’re still fresh. We’re still furious, and we’re still playing.
THE MODERATOR: We’d like to thank Coach Pearl for joining us here in the interview room. Coach, we’ll see you back here tomorrow.