AUBURN, Ala. — New Auburn coach Bruce Pearl wasted no time making an impression — and some bold promises.
The former Tennessee coach sprung for pizza for several hundred students Tuesday a few hours after arriving in town, some of whom took selfies posing next to him. Then he told a couple thousand fans at Auburn Arena: “We will play for championships.”
“We’re fixing to get Auburn into that position where we’ll be going to the NCAA tournament,” he said, adding that he wanted to be the winningest coach in program history.
Before stepping away from the podium, he proclaimed: “I’m baack.” Then Auburn fans sang Happy Birthday to Pearl, who turned 54 on Tuesday and suggested they celebrate at the NCAA tournament next year.
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The Tigers turned to Pearl to revive a struggling basketball program that hasn’t made that field since 2003, causing quite a splash in a football-mad state. Athletic director Jay Jacobs landed his top target with a six-year deal starting at $2.2 million annually, less than a week after firing Tony Barbee. They first spoke at the ESPN studio where Pearl had been working last Friday night.
Pearl will receive a $100,000 raise each year and will owe Auburn $5 million if he leaves in the next two years, Jacobs said. It made the $2,100 tab for pizza easy to swallow.
Pearl remains under a show-cause penalty from the NCAA barring him from recruiting until Aug. 23. Auburn has 30 days to accept or contest the penalty, and Jacobs said the school hasn’t decided how to handle that yet.
Pearl had plenty of success on the court, taking Tennessee to the NCAA tournament in each of his six seasons before getting fired in March 2011 in the wake of an NCAA investigation.
Jacobs said he believes Pearl “has learned from his mistake.” Pearl repeatedly talked about getting this second chance, and said he had heard from “a few schools” but was prepared to have to wait until after the show-cause expired to land a job.
“I would not have gone this year had I not felt this was the right opportunity,” Pearl said. “I was prepared to not coach this year.”
Pearl was greeted by 100-plus fans when he landed at the airport in Auburn. He jumped into a mosh pit of fans.
“I want this same reception when we come back with an SEC championship,” he told them.
• Kerry Carter scored 10 points over the final five minutes and host Saint Mary’s stormed back from 10 points down in the second half to beat Utah 70-58 in the first round of the NIT.
The Gaels (23-11) will play against Minnesota in the second round.
Jordan Loveridge scored 16 points for Utah (21-12), which led the entire first half and was up 41-31 with 12:30 remaining before collapsing down the stretch. The Utes missed five of their last six shots.
• Steve Donahue has been fired as Boston College’s basketball coach after an 8-24 season. The Eagles failed to reach the NCAA tournament in his four years in the job. BC was 54-76 under Donahue.
• Montana State men’s basketball coach Brad Huse has resigned after eight seasons. Athletic director Peter Fields said Huse will receive the final year of his contract, which paid him $135,000 a year. Huse was 107-133 with the Bobcats.
• Kansas State lured away Jeff Mittie away from Big 12 rival Texas Christian to become its new women’s basketball coach, replacing longtime coach Deb Patterson.