AUBURN, Ala. -- The signs are subtle, and yet for the first time in a long time, they are unmistakably there.
When approaching the small college town, drivers on Interstate 85 pass new billboards featuring Bruce Pearl, that read: “Let’s do this together.” Inside the University Bookstore in Haley Center, the orange and blue gear has been carefully displayed for the beginning of football season, but among the shelves of blue shirts, there are now racks of orange shirts that say, “War Eagle, Bruce.” Just through the front entrance of Auburn Arena, there stands a life-size cutout of a smiling Pearl. Linger for a moment and the nearest arena staff member will proudly say, “Go ahead, take a picture.” She'll continue, “He’s had a lot of visitors since he was hired in back in March, and we expect there will be more to come very soon.”
Anticipation has been rising since the minute Pearl was hired as the Tigers’ new head basketball coach, and it seems that since the minute his three-year NCAA show-cause penalty ended (on Aug. 25), allowing him to recruit again, there’s been even more to be excited about. Seconds after Pearl was officially allowed to recruit, the phone began to ring. Charles Barkley, Auburn’s most famous basketball alum, was the first call. After he offered his support, players started to show their interest. Top talents, such as junior college star T.J. Dunans and top recruits Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer, were ready to commit to Pearl immediately.
On Saturday, Steps from the basketball arena, 87,451 people gathered inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for the beginning of the football season, the main event. Football might always be the king, but it is firmly in the lead following one of the most miraculous years in school history. After a 3-9 season in 2012 (0-8 SEC), Gus Malzhan and the Tigers returned to the national stage as SEC champions, falling just short of claiming a national championship. Now people in Auburn believe that the time has come for the basketball team.
The newly returned coach is up front that the changes will take some time. It’s an accepted, maybe even welcomed philosophy, simply because it will permit fans to continue their focus on tailgating and touchdowns, but everyone in this particular part of Alabama is aware that changes are on the way.
The practice gym walls within the $86 million arena provide simple wisdom -- Championships will be won in practice. So as the tens of thousands filed into Jordan-Hare Stadium, the basketball team took to the hardwood.
Pearl stood outside the gym doors saying a quick hello to a handful of fans. One fan shook his hand.The man said he’d met Pearl briefly before, when he coached at that other SEC school. Pearl tells them man that Auburn has a lot of work to do. The man responds to Pearl’s honesty. “Maybe … but you’ll get there.”