Bruce Pearl leads Auburn to state’s first-ever Final Four

Coach Bruce Pearl speaks at the opening ceremonies of the 2017 JCC Maccabi Games in Birmingham. File photo by Rabbi Barry Altmark

In leading the Auburn Tigers to the first men’s basketball Final Four of any university in the state, Bruce Pearl also became only the fifth Jewish head coach to reach the Final Four.

Pearl, the first president of the Jewish Coaches Association, isn’t exactly quiet about it. “I’m kind of loud and I’m kind of proud,” he said the day before the April 6 Final Four game against Virginia.

Since arriving in Auburn, he has been active in Jewish events as time permits, even hosting a latke party in his home each season for the Auburn Hillel.

At the Final Four, Pearl said he is grateful for “the religious freedom I have to be a practicing Jew in the Christian community. I can tell you down South it is so comfortable there because we share the same God. And my Christian brothers embrace that. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Noting that freedom doesn’t exist everywhere, he added “we need to make sure that we do the best job we can as a Jewish man to represent and break down stereotypes while we maintain our identity.”

He has been Auburn’s coach since 2014 and won the Southeastern Conference regular season championship in 2018. Pearl took the University of Southern Indiana to the championship of Division II in 1995.

In this year’s tournament, five-seed Auburn barely made it past New Mexico State in the first round, then took down Kansas, 89-75. Auburn then knocked out one-seed North Carolina, 97-80, and topped Kentucky in the Elite Eight, 77-71 in overtime. With the latter three wins, Auburn defeated the three winningest programs in college basketball.

In the Final Four, Auburn lost to eventual champion Virginia, 63-62, on a heartbreaker after coming back from a 10-point deficit. A controversial foul put Virginia, down by two, on the free throw line with three shots and 0.6 seconds left in the game.

Charles Barkley, Auburn basketball royalty who now does television commentary, said it was a foul, but many have pointed to an uncalled possible double-dribble by Virginia just before the foul.

Of the five Jewish coaches to reach the Final Four, two won championships.

Nat Holman won the national championship with City College of New York in 1950, becoming the only coach in history to win both the NCAA and NIT in the same season. A victory over Kentucky in the NIT was the worst loss of Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp’s career, and the Kentucky legislature called for the capitol flag to be flown at half mast.

At the time, the 12-team NIT was more prestigious than the 8-team NCAA tournament.

An original Celtic, Holman organized the U.S. team for the first Maccabiah Games in Palestine in 1932, and in 1949 was the first American to coach in Israel.

Larry Brown led Kansas to the title in 1988 after bringing UCLA to the Final Four in 1980.

Brown, who as a player led the U.S. team to the gold medal in the 1961 Maccabiah in Israel and the U.S. Olympics team to gold in 1964, is the only coach to win an NCAA title and an NBA title, with Detroit in 2004.

Harry Litwack of Temple reached the Final Four in 1956 and 1958, losing both times in the semifinals, and winning the 1969 NIT.

Guy Lewis led Houston to five Final Four appearances, in 1967 and 1968, then three years in a row from 1982 to 1984 with a team known as “Phi Slama Jama.” The 1983 and 1984 teams reached the championship game.

As with many of the other Jewish Final Four coaches, Pearl had a Maccabiah experience, coaching the 2009 team that included his son, Stephen, to the gold medal.

Before heading to Israel, Pearl, then coach at Tennessee, brought the Maccabiah team members to Shabbat services at Heska Amuna in Knoxville, where he led the service.

“To take 12 Jewish men to Israel and to come back to the U.S. as mensches was incredibly meaningful,” he said. “To wear USA on our chests and to have a Star of David in our hearts was special.”

He was the keynote speaker for the 2017 JCC Maccabi Games opening ceremony in Birmingham. “Breaking down stereotypes is a huge part of my life,” he said. “To see what the Maccabi Games did to give such a positive impression of Birmingham and the South warmed my heart. There were kids and their parents coming to Birmingham for the first time and they all seemed to have so many great things to say about their time there.”

On April 30, Pearl will be the keynote speaker at the State of Alabama’s Holocaust commemoration at the Capitol, which he attended last year. Each year, Pearl participates in Auburn’s “We Walk to Remember” commemoration, part of “Unto Every Person There is a Name.”

At Tennessee, he took his team to the Czech Republic and Germany, including stops at the Dachau and Theresienstadt concentration camps on the itinerary. In a 2008 interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said he visits a concentration camp every time he goes to Europe, and many of his players didn’t know anything about the Holocaust.

“For me as a coach and a teacher, my whole thing is to bring my team together, to accept each other’s differences, to tolerate one another, and that helps us become a great team,” he explained.

After the Final Four defeat, Pearl emphasized demonstrating class and dignity. “There are lots of calls during the game, and you’re going to get some, and some you’re not going to get,” he said.

He told the players “Would we have trusted God any more in victory than we would trust Him in defeat, in the sense that He carried us all the way here, all season long, and put so much blessing upon us? So this is what the plan was, and let’s handle the defeat with dignity.”

Reflecting on the game, Pearl said “I’d like it to be remembered for a great game. Let’s not remember this game because of just how it ended. Let’s remember two teams that played really hard that only had 13 turnovers combined, didn’t shoot it very well because there was great defense… It was a great college basketball game.”