Birthright and College Basketball: Coach Bruce Pearl takes the Auburn Tigers to Israel

Jul 27, 2022 | Jews in Sports

On the plane back from Israel for the second time in his life, Auburn men’s basketball head coach Bruce Pearl had already made up his mind. He was going to return this August, with a new group of people who he wanted to share his experiences with: his entire Auburn men’s basketball team.

With August fast approaching, Coach Pearl, who is Jewish, is now entering the final preparations to begin his inaugural “Birthright for College Basketball” Tour. He soon plans to take his team to begin their journey to Israel, and before he leaves, he reflected on what has led him to become so passionate about this kind of trip and experience for his players.

Growing up, Pearl was the star athlete who everyone wanted on their team. “I was one of the best athletes in town, always the first kid picked in everything,” he said. He was the quarterback, the point guard, and the first baseman. During his freshman year of high school, he had an unfortunate knee injury that took him out of many of his favorite sports. He lost much of the mobility in his leg, and thus was unable to play his two best sports, basketball and football.

Bruce Pearl – Photo Credit: Auburn Tigers

When he began attending Boston College in 1978, he tried to walk on, but was cut from the team. However, head coach Tom Davis saw something special in Pearl, and decided to keep him around. “Coach Davis saw a passion in me, and offered me an opportunity to work for the program in any and all capacities,” Pearl remembers excitedly. He began as a student manager, and ended up as an assistant coach by the end of the season, a huge accomplishment that usually takes many years to complete. “I got involved in everything,” says Pearl. “I didn’t think I was going to coach, but I just loved it.”

Going into his senior year of college, he had job opportunities available with Procter and Gamble and IBM, and had been seriously considering pursuing a marketing career. At that same time, Coach Davis had just been hired by Stanford to be its new men’s basketball coach, and asked Pearl to come with him. Although still a senior in college, Pearl decided to pivot career paths, and accepted the job. Pearl is currently one of very few college basketball coaches to have never played college basketball himself.

He remained with Coach Davis at Stanford and later Iowa until 1992, where he got his first head-coaching job with University of Southern Indiana (USI). Pearl coached the Division-II USI Screaming Eagles for nine successful seasons, finishing his tenure with a record of 231-46. He left USI in 2001 to return to Division I NCAA basketball, where he coached the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for four years, posting an all-time league leading winning percentage of 79.9% before departing in 2005 for Tennessee. Pearl stayed at Tennessee until 2011, and later became the head coach of Auburn in 2014, where he coaches currently.

Bruce Pearl – Photo Credit: Auburn Tigers

Pearl’s first time in Israel wasn’t until 2009, when he spent the summer as a coach for the Maccabiah games, leading a talented team USA to victory. He was honored to spend time in the Holy Land combining his passions for basketball and Judaism at the same time. “I’m almost embarrassed to say that 2009 was my first trip to Israel,” Pearl says. “I had every intention in 1982 to go to Israel and live there long enough to join the army and do service, but I didn’t do it because I had other job offers and basketball offers that got in the way.”

Pearl’s family history in Israel dates back to World War II as his grandparents had all fled from the Ukraine and Russia areas to Israel to beat the Holocaust. “I immediately understood what that was all about when I was coaching there, to take these young Jewish men and help them understand their history, responsibility, and hopefully to get them to fall in love with Israel as I had as a younger boy,” Pearl said about Team USA. “And we did it. We had the trip of a lifetime. We beat Israel in overtime, and Israel doesn’t lose at home very often. It was exciting to be there.”

Currently coaching at Auburn, Pearl leads with the lessons he’s learned from his first Israel trip, including those of perseverance and connection. He puts his players first, and was most proud of this year’s team for sticking together through tough times. “The fact that we had four new starters and we managed to get to number one in the country and stay there for three weeks” was Pearl’s favorite part of the team’s 2022 NCAA championship run. “For a period, nobody in college basketball was playing as good as we were,” Pearl declared. “I’m so proud of the kids and the staff for the way we came together. We believed we had the best front line in college basketball with the best players and the best defenders every night.”

Bruce Pearl – Photo Credit: Auburn Tigers

March Madness is special for many reasons. We follow the Cinderella stories, the dominant runs, and the players who step up in big moments. For Auburn men’s basketball, it was another opportunity for the program to prove that they belong in the conversation as a consistent basketball powerhouse.

This year’s March Madness tournament overlapped with the Jewish holiday of Purim, a rare occurrence. Purim is a celebration of the Jews being saved from persecution in ancient Persia. Pearl took the opportunity in one of his last press conferences of the tournament to express the importance of his Jewish heritage and how it intersects with basketball. He spoke powerfully and confidently on the current Ukraine issues and the influential example that Queen Esther leads with in the Purim story.

Pearl elaborated on his response by explaining why it was such a special time for him to be speaking about the holiday at this press conference. “During Purim, I had been praying for an opportunity to say something. But the opportunity never really presented itself appropriately during the NCAA tournament. However, the very last question of one of my last press conferences was a political question about Ukraine and my willingness to join with other women’s basketball coaches to contribute our own personal funds to help the crisis,” Pearl says. This last question was the only one he had received over Zoom instead of in-person, and as it came over a loudspeaker, he described it as feeling like it had come from the heavens. “That was God at work,” expressed Pearl. “I was able to then talk about Ukraine but also transition to who I am, what holiday I was celebrating, and the great dangers the Jewish people faced in Persia at the time as well as the dangers the Israelis are facing right now…” he continued.

Bruce Pearl – Photo Credit: Auburn Tigers

Pearl sees his Judaism as part of everything he does, including basketball, and takes great pride in seizing opportunities to promote Jewish values. “I’m very proud of my Jewish identity, and not afraid to put that pride on full display even though there are many times where because of anti-Semitism it wouldn’t benefit me personally or professionally. I’m active politically, speaking out publicly on anti-Semitism, racism, and other issues of intolerance. I take the words ‘never again’ seriously,” he says.

His most recent Israel trip took place last month, where he went for a second time with an Israel education group that he’s very active in. Upon his return, Pearl was “happy to report that, in so many ways, Israel is flourishing.” He plans to go back this August to begin an inaugural event that will act as a birthright trip for college basketball. Pearl is planning this unique trip because he believes that it’s important for everyone, at least once in their lifetime, to experience everything Israel has to offer. “My players are going to see their Judeo-Christian roots, and for those who want to get baptized in the river Jordan, they will. They’ll walk in the garden where Jesus walked and they’ll pray at the Western Wall. And they’ll experience firsthand God’s presence in the Holy Land. Just come and see it, you’ll be changed forever,” says Pearl. No other major DI basketball team to Pearl’s knowledge has done a trip like this before, and he can’t stress enough how important he feels it is that teams get the opportunity to have influential experiences and trips in Israel.

Bruce Pearl – Photo Credit: Auburn Tigers

After he returns from his trip in August, Pearl will shift his focus to the upcoming season. His goals are simple: “Over the last five years, Auburn men’s basketball has won more games than anyone in the SEC, and I’d like to be able to say next summer that that’s the case over the last six years,” he says confidently. Pearl believes that his players are the reason that Auburn’s basketball program is so successful and is proud of the athletes he’s been able to help them become. When asked about the biggest accomplishments of his coaching career, after the two divisional championships he won in 1995 and Auburn’s final four appearance in 2019, he said he’s most proud of “all of the student athletes who’ve put up with me over the years and the impact we’ve had on them.”

Pearl plans to start his “Birthright for College Basketball” Tour on July 31, and will travel with the team in Israel until August 10th. As stated in a press release from the team, “…the reigning SEC regular-season champion Tigers will compete in three games against Israel’s top teams over the course of the 10-day trip.” All games will be televised on SEC Network. Pearl can’t wait to get his trip off the ground and running, and has high hopes for what’s to come. “Birthright for College Basketball in Israel will become one of the most sought after and impactful foreign trips in the future,” he says. Don’t miss the exciting start to Auburn’s season as they begin the trip of a lifetime together in Israel.

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