Auburn Tigers coach Bruce Pearl might be coaching in his first Final Four, but it hardly means he is likely to stumble on Saturday evening against Virginia in Minneapolis.
Pearl just turned 59. He spent years removed from Division I basketball because of the Deon Thomas recruiting incident and everything involved in it. What could have been a prosperous Division I head coaching career in the late 1990s after several fruitful years as an assistant to Dr. Tom Davis at Iowa didn’t hit the big-time until Pearl made the 2005 Sweet 16 with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Pearl was 45 when that NCAA Tournament ended. Only then did his career take off. He took Tennessee — a school which still hasn’t made a Final Four — to its first and still only Elite Eight in 2010.
Then came the barbecue and another multi-year interruption to his career. He spent time at ESPN, then returned to the SEC at Auburn.
It wasn’t his preferred plan, but Auburn gave him a chance (a chance he deserved — let’s not equate Pearl’s actions with those of, for instance, Dana Altman at Oregon, a very different matter).
At a program with only one previous Elite Eight appearance in its entire history, Pearl — in five seasons — has guided the Tigers to their first Final Four. He did so by beating Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky in succession.
This first-time caller at the Final Four has spent plenty of time observing and taking in details on how to create an elite basketball program. Not Pearl, not Tony Bennett — his opponent on Saturday in the first national semifinal — and not Chris Beard figure to be overmatched in their first Final Fours. These are four exceptional coaches.
There is no Porter Moser, riding the wave of one great season. There is no Kevin Ollie, a coach who had 15 seconds of fame in 2014 but couldn’t do a darned thing in subsequent seasons. There is no Tom Crean, being carried to the Final Four by Dwyane Wade and not coming especially close to the Final Four after that.
Pearl, Bennett and Beard — the first-timers — have all shown they are better than one great season.
Pearl, though, is different from Bennett and Beard in that he is arriving at college basketball’s Holy Grail after turning 55 years old. This is not an everyday occurrence, so you might wonder: How often do coaches make their first Final Four after the double-nickel?
Since the NCAA Tournament was first seeded in 1979, here is a list of those coaches with their Final Four outcomes:
1985: Lou Carnesecca, St. John’s — lost to Georgetown
1995: Jim Harrick, UCLA — beat Oklahoma State, beat Arkansas to win the national title
1998: Bill Guthridge, North Carolina — lost to Utah
1999: Jim Calhoun, Connecticut — beat Ohio State, beat Duke to win the national title
2000: Dick Bennett, Wisconsin — lost to Michigan State
2001: Gary Williams, Maryland — lost to Duke
2006: Jim Larranaga, George Mason — lost to Florida
2013: John Beilein, Michigan — beat Syracuse, lost to Louisville
2014: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin — lost to Kentucky
2017: Dana Altman, Oregon — lost to North Carolina
That’s 11 coaches in 41 Final Fours. Five of the 11 coaches led No. 1 seeds to the Final Four. Two coached teams seeded No. 8 or lower. Pearl is one of four coaches to lead teams seeded 2 through 5 to the Big Show.
There was no 1-68 seed list two decades ago at the NCAA Tournament, but one can reasonably evaluate which team might have been a higher seed if teams were on the same seed line. In recent years, the presence of a seed list enabled teams to be easily identified as a higher seed; on the court, the higher seed is now defined by the team which wears its home uniforms. (At the 2019 Final Four, no teams are on the same seed line, which will remove this point of confusion.)
From the list above, five coaches coached against higher seeds in national semifinals, and five coaches coached against lower seeds. The five coaches who faced higher seeds went 0-5 in national semifinals. The five who faced lower seeds went 3-2 in national semifinals.
Bruce Pearl is facing a higher seed — Virginia — this Saturday. He is therefore trying to become the first over-55 coach in the seeded era of the NCAA Tournament (1979) to win a national semifinal in his Final Four game against a higher seed. His five predecessors — Carnesecca, Dick Bennett, Williams, Larranaga, and Altman — could not achieve that feat.
Given that Pearl has taken Auburn to its first Final Four, and given that Pearl took Tennessee to its only Elite Eight, and given that Pearl has beaten Kansas, Carolina and Kentucky in the same NCAA Tournament, why wouldn’t Pearl do something new… and arrive in the national championship game for the first time in his life?
This first-time caller at the Final Four could be the one who calls all the shots on Saturday evening and then Monday Night.
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