In the 1980s, it seemed as if Sonny Smith did the impossible at Auburn.
He made the basketball team relevant for an extended period. The Tigers won an SEC tournament championship. They made the NCAA tournament five straight years. They won at least a first-round game four times. One year they made the final 16, and the next, they made the final eight.
Nobody at Auburn had that kind of consistency.
Certainly, Auburn has caught lightning before and since. Joe Eaves had an incredible run in 1958-60, finishing second twice and winning the league in 1960. His 1958 team scored a win over Kentucky, which went on to win the NCAA title. Cliff Ellis won an SEC title at Auburn in 1999.
But, Bruce Pearl?
He’s done more. He’s reached great heights while building a program that should last longer than a great two- or three-year run.
He won 26 games in 2018 and an SEC regular-season championship. That increased to 30 in 2019, along with an SEC tournament championship and the program’s first Final Four appearance. He lost his top three players off that team but has rocketed to 14 straight wins this season.
He’s done this before — he was a consistent winner at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tennessee. Had he not had NCAA troubles with the Vols, he might still be there … probably with a couple of Final Four appearances to his credit.
Until Bruce Pearl, you could make a solid argument that even with Alabama’s inconsistent success, the Tide was historically a better basketball program. Before too long, that won’t be the case.
Pearl is a game-changer. And, Alabama could’ve made a run at him had it been willing to dump Anthony Grant after a 13-19 season in 2014. Instead, Auburn lured him to replace Tony Barbee that off-season.
Turns out, that might rank as Auburn’s biggest basketball win in history — even bigger than that 1958 win over Kentucky.