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Bruce Pearl faces tall task in rebuilding stagnant Auburn program

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Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn, left, greets Bruce Pearl, who was named men's basketball coach at Auburn on Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn, left, greets Bruce Pearl, who was named men's basketball coach at Auburn on Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Bruce Pearl returned to coaching hoping not only to lead a hoops revival at Auburn but help restore the Southeastern Conference to national prominence beyond Florida and Kentucky.

Even a tireless promoter and showman like Pearl, the temporarily exiled former Tennessee coach, faces a tough challenge at a program that has long been relegated to watching the NCAA tournament on TV.

The Tigers have only made the field three times since a string of five straight NCAA appearances ended in 1988, the last trip coming in 2003.

Pearl knows Auburn fans are "starved" for success on the hard court, but also thinks the SEC needs a boost after only the Gators, Wildcats and Volunteers made this season's 68-team field.

"Men's basketball in the SEC has not been what it needs to be lately," Pearl said after his hiring Tuesday. "The fact that we sent three teams to the NCAA tournament as a major conference in basketball, something has got to be done."

He pledged to bring Auburn back to that level, too. Pearl was Auburn's splashiest basketball hire and received a six-year, $14.7 million deal. It's a contract Pearl says proves Auburn's serious about "raising the bar."

He has proven he can promote a basketball program at what's mostly known as a football school. Auburn was 14-16 last season and loses leading scorer Chris Denson and two other starter,

The Tigers' last seven coaches have had losing SEC records.

The 54-year-old Pearl led Tennessee to six consecutive NCAA tournaments before getting fired and being placed under a three-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA after lying to investigators about violations involving a cookout at his home for junior prospects and their families.

He takes over a program with a four-year-old, $87 million arena that has seldom been close to filled as the Tigers ranked 13th in the SEC in average attendance last season.

Former Auburn coach Sonny Smith, who led the Tigers during their modern heyday in the 1980s, said Auburn must have patience given the level of returning talent. But Smith feels Pearl is "exactly what the Auburn Tigers needed."

"Bruce Pearl is a great promoter, and that's what is really needed right now," Smith said. "A person that can promote himself and a person that can promote the program, and Bruce Pearl is one of the very best at promotions."

Pearl endeared himself to Tennessee fans with antics like appearing at a Lady Vols basketball game with his bare chest painted orange. Attendance rose, and so did the win totals.

Now, Pearl says, "Chances are I am going to keep my clothes on most of the time."

Pearl led the Vols to their first No. 1 ranking in 2008, their first SEC regular season championship in four decades and first NCAA tournament regional finals appearance.

"What lends us the confidence that we think we can do it here is that we've done it in the past," said Tony Jones, a former Tennessee assistant who is joining Pearl's Auburn staff.

Plus, he points to the "very intimate" Auburn Arena.

"If you fill this place up, I'm sure it can get awfully loud," Jones said.

Pearl said he doesn't mind being at a school known primarily for the football program. He sang the praises of football coach Gus Malzahn, who attended Tuesday's news conference with his family.

"I'm a football fan," Pearl said. "Do you have any idea how much I'm looking forward to going to football games and tailgating and watching coach Malzahn and his assistants? He's brilliant.

"It doesn't take a football coach to see that when he coaches it's a mismatch every time his team steps on the floor from a coaching standpoint. That's the way it is."

The gregarious Pearl made an impression on students by buying them 200 pizzas, mingling and entertaining the crowd, a change from the more stoic, introverted Tony Barbee.

Pearl also impressed Auburn point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who started as a freshman.

Shamsid-Deen said what stood out most was "the fact that he said we're his players."

"Knowing that he wants to coach us makes all the guys want to stay and play for him," he said.

___

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Follow John Zenor on Twitter @jzenor

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