Auburn wins historic battle of Jewish coaches in SEC tournament championship

Auburn celebrates the SEC tournament championship. Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics

The Southeastern Conference men’s basketball championship game turned into the Jewish coaches invitational.

Fourth-seeded Auburn, coached by Bruce Pearl, defeated sixth-seed Florida, which is coached by Pearl’s former assistant, Todd Golden, 86-67, in Nashville on March 17.

The unprecedented head-to-head matchup of Jewish coaches with an SEC title on the line was part of a day that saw four Jewish coaches reach championship games. Duquesne, coached by Keith Dambrot, won the Atlantic 10 championship over Virginia Commonwealth, 57-51; while Temple, led by Adam Fisher, lost to UAB in the American championship.

There are currently 12 Jewish head coaches among the 361 Division I programs.

This is Pearl’s second SEC tournament championship. Auburn also won it in 2019, then became the first team from the state of Alabama to reach the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. He has also won three regular season SEC championships, two at Auburn and one at Tennessee.

Coach Bruce Pearl sports a pin with the U.S. and Israel flags during the SEC championship game. Screenshot.

With Auburn pulling away in the waning moments of the game, Pearl was seen with tears in his eyes with two minutes remaining. He said after the game that he was thinking about his father, who died in August. “He held me to a high standard, and I hold my players to a high standard,” he said.

During the game, Pearl and a couple other coaches sported pins with the U.S. and Israel flags. Pearl has been outspoken in defending Israel, including battling on social media even during the season. He routinely speaks about Israel at synagogues and churches throughout the region, and is involved in several Israel-related non-profits.

Earlier this season, Auburn Hillel joined Athletes for Israel and members of the Auburn basketball and baseball teams to make gift bags for soldiers and families in Israel.

In 2022, he took his Auburn team on what he called Birthright for Basketball, a summer trip to Israel where they played three Israeli teams, including the national team, in the first such visit to Israel by a Power 5 program. Pearl developed the trip with the hopes that other universities would follow, and this past summer Arizona and Kansas State made a similar trip, adding games in the United Arab Emirates to make it an Abraham Accords trip.

Pearl also was founding president of the Jewish Coaches Association, which has a gathering every year at the Final Four. He hopes to be too busy this year, as he told the team upon arriving in Nashville that their goal was nine straight wins — three to win the SEC and six to win the NCAA.

Golden grew up minutes from the Jewish Community Center in Phoenix, Ariz., and went there every day after school. Golden, who has a U.S.-Israel dual citizenship, played for Maccabi Haifa from 2008 to 2010, after graduating from St. Mary’s.

“Being in Israel was a life-changing experience for me,” said Golden. “I learned so much there and it really helped me as I transitioned into coaching. I still have a lot of good friends there and thank goodness they have been safe” during the current conflict.

Pearl and Golden first crossed paths in 2009, when Pearl coached the U.S. basketball team at the World Maccabiah Games, held every four years in Israel. It was the first time the U.S. took the gold medal, and Golden was on the team, along with Pearl’s son, Steven, who is currently associate head coach at Auburn.

Golden was an assistant coach for Pearl at Auburn from 2014 to 2016, and credits the Auburn coach as being a mentor.

“I owe so much to him for all he did for me. He has really helped in my acclimation process to the SEC. Bruce is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and his work ethic is something that I emulate.”

When he was hired at Florida in 2022 after being head coach at San Francisco, he said of his former boss “It will be a unique experience to compete against him.”

The University of Florida is said to have the largest population of Jewish students of any public university in the country, with about 6,500 Jewish undergraduates and around 9,500 overall. Golden said he has great relationships with the students and Chabad House. “I want them to know I’m there for them,” said Golden.

Auburn is a four seed in the NCAA tournament, facing Yale in the first round on March 22 in Spokane, Wash. A victory would mean a match against the winner of UAB and San Diego State on Purim, for the head coach whose Hebrew name is Mordecai. Florida is a seven seed, facing the winner of the Colorado-Boise State play-in game on March 22 in Indianapolis.