SALT LAKE CITY -- It wasn't too long ago that Bruce Pearl was stocking shelves for a wholesale distributor. He took a job with the H.T. Hackney Co. three months after being fired amid mounting scandal from the University of Tennessee in May 2011 and remained there for three years, working seven days a week, grinding away like he would as the head coach for a major college basketball program.
On Wednesday, the day before leading his Auburn Tigers back into the NCAA tournament, Pearl talked about being "a little older, a little wiser, maybe a little bit more patient, maybe a little bit more grateful" ever since. He shared what one of his daughters told him during that tumultuous time in his life.
"Leah told me that she had never been prouder of her father," Pearl said, "because I treated that job like it was my last."
Pearl led Auburn -- the school that hired him while he was still under show-cause penalty in the spring of 2014 -- back into the Sweet 16 with an 89-75 domination of Kansas on Saturday night, punctuating his distinctive return to prominence. It was Auburn's 10th consecutive victory since a defining loss to Kentucky in late February, and it marked the program's first trip to the regional semifinals since 2003, when Marquis Daniels led the way.
Pearl, back in the Sweet 16 himself for the first time in nine years, is leading a program that recently went 15 years without an invite to the NCAA tournament, with a roster that possesses very few four-star recruits. It's his moment again, though he prefers not to treat it as such.
"The thing that I'm most proud of is just graduating our kids, and the fact that we've been successful and we've won every place we've been," Pearl said in a postgame interview with ESPN. "I learned from a great teacher in Dr. Tom Davis, and I plug in what he taught me. I have a phenomenal coaching staff of fathers and sons and men, so it's great. It's great to be at Auburn and the SEC. But we've been here before, and we have more work to do."
Auburn led by 26 points at halftime and came within four points of handing Kansas, one of the most storied franchises in college basketball, its largest margin of defeat in NCAA tournament history.
The Tigers scored 30 points in transition and made 13 3-pointers, breaking a school record for 3s in an NCAA tournament game and displaying the two traits that made them SEC tournament champions for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
Dedric Lawson, the Kansas big man who was supposed to give Auburn fits in the paint, was held to one field goal through the first 20 minutes and later fought back tears in front of his locker.
"I hate losing," said Lawson, who somehow finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds. "I feel like we didn't accomplish the things that we should've this year. Being a leader, I feel like it's my fault."
The Tigers finished Saturday's game with the program's largest margin of victory in the NCAA tourney since the opening round in 1999. Auburn nearly blew a seven-point lead in the final minute against New Mexico State in Thursday's opening round, but Pearl liked what he saw from his team in the wake of that 78-77 nail-biter.
"We weren't very happy," he said. "We were accountable for the fact that we had a meltdown."
Pearl has spent the entire season trying to instill confidence in his young group. After advancing past the round of 64, Auburn guard J'Von McCormick was asked about the "swagger" on his team and shrugged. After he walked off, Pearl chimed in.
"We've developed a confidence and a trust in one another and our depth as the season has progressed," Pearl said. "But I don't know that we really have a swagger -- yet."
That aspect might be flourishing at the perfect time, a notion that displayed itself throughout what was widely considered -- everywhere except inside the Auburn locker room -- a major upset. Brown said he wasn't surprised by Saturday's outcome, "Because we just feel like we have the better team, we have the better players and we feel like we can compete with anybody."
That confidence has been nurtured by Pearl, a man who has admittedly been humbled since his last time on this stage.
"He's one of the most positive coaches you'll ever find," Harper said. "He has all the confidence in us, so that makes us play even better."