I traveled through the seven stages of grief today, following Auburn’s hiring Bruce Pearl as their basketball coach, and I have emerged reflective. It is the best thing that could have happened to The University of Alabama men’s basketball program. Keep reading; I’m not insane.
Pearl, if you remember, came to the country’s attention in beating a #5 seeded Mark Gottfried coached Alabama team while at Wisky-Milwaukee.. He then went on to Tennessee where he turned the Vols’ basketball program around immediately, made recruiting splashes, and went to an Elite 8 and a Sweet 16 in four years, making the field in the other two. Notably, he showed up at a Lady Vols’ basketball game in body paint, and his enthusiasm led to significant spikes in Volunteers’ basketball attendance.
Contrast Pearl to Alabama current coach, Anthony Grant. In Grant's first season at Alabama, the Crimson Tide went 17–15 (6–10). From all accounts, Grant inherited a better situation than Pearl did at Tennessee. In his second season at the Capstone, Grant's young team struggled early in the season, going 8–6 during non-conference play, but bounced back, going 12–4 in SEC play, to win the SEC Western Division title. That team’s schedule was reminiscent of this year’s. There were some strong games scheduled, but the Tide won none of them, sending us to the NIT based primarily on inability to win the big game. But it was progress, and every Bama fan had reason to be excited. The Crimson Tide had four players graduate and two transfer after the season ended. They also brought in five freshman recruits and one junior college transfer, finishing fifth in Rivals.com team recruiting rankings. Grant would make the 2012 NCAA Tournament in his third season despite a mediocre 9-7 in conference mark, losing to Creighton in the first round on a controversial call, to say the least. In his 4th season at the Capstone, the wheels began to wobble, a sign that they were about to come off. On first glance, a 2nd place SEC 12-6 mark with a win over Kentucky looks nice. On closer inspection, losses at home to Mercer and Tulane, and continued inability to beat anyone ranked or even noteworthy (Kentucky notwithstanding), led to yet another NIT bid. We all know what happened this year: utter and complete disaster.
Attendance at Alabama basketball games continues to dwindle. The reported attendance at games in Coleman hovers around 11,000. If you have been to the games, you know that this number is inflated, to use the least offensive word that comes to mind. The people who are there seem to have taken a vow of silence. I am old enough to have been a student at The University when Wimp Sanderson was coach, and I attended games in the early days of Mark Gottfried’s tenure. Particularly under Sanderson, there was an intimidating atmosphere in the "Plaid Palace," most of which was cultivated by Wimp. He engaged the student body and alums; he showed up at other events; he was visible, and he was personable. If the Crimson Caravan was a thing back then, you can bet that he would have fought to have a basketball version. You wanted him to succeed because you knew he cared. Bruce Pearl brought the same energy and personality to Tennessee, and there is no reason to believe that he won’t do the same thing at Auburn. The result, undoubtedly, will be a packed and rowdy Auburn arena.
So, Bammers, the point that I have been trying to make is this: currently The University has a basketball coach whose results have shown that he can produce a team that will finish near the top of the SEC standings, and be a borderline NCAA/NIT team. He is a ghost around campus who does nothing to incite students and alums to attend games and make their presence known. Auburn has hired a coach whose results have shown that he can produce a team that can win the SEC and make a run in the NCAA tournament on a yearly basis. He has an electric personality that can get his fans excited about the games.
So, I’ve laid out this nightmare of a contrast which may have you thinking: HOW IN THE HELL IS THIS GOOD FOR ALABAMA BASKETBALL? Listen up. Come closer. A little closer. Have you ever known Alabama to play second fiddle to Auburn in a revenue sport for any length of time? Mediocrity was oddly acceptable as long as Auburn was significantly worse and Bama wasn’t embarrassing themselves. Now, Auburn has raised the bar, and it is Alabama’s time to respond. Grant has been given another year to prove that he is the man for the job. If Pearl wipes the floor with him, you can bet he’ll be advised not to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out. If Grant succeeds, he has until 2017 to continue his winning ways. Maybe the Pearl hire was the impetus he needs to show what he can do. Constant pressure can do that to a man. However, I am confident that if Auburn somehow becomes a basketball powerhouse, The University will not sit idly by, not respond, and be a laughing stock. That is not who we are.
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