Auburn University’s best and most impressive NCAA basketball trophy doesn’t sit in a glass case.
Instead it walks, talks and exists as a multi-part living display that far transcends anything of simple material value.
But how did it get there?
Stuck in mud
Let’s go back a ways.
No offense to anyone, but it isn’t like Bruce Pearl & Company inherited a cupboard full of riches when he took over the available talent pool at Auburn in 2014.
Maybe fans can recall. The players were gritty and some gave all they had, but it was like starting a foot race wearing boots in the mud while thoroughbreds like No. 1 Kentucky donned track shoes on starting blocks.
Remember the likes of rough-and-rumble Cinmeon Bowers from Racine, Wisconsin; or Malcolm Canada from Austin, Texas; or Antoine Mason from Queens, New York?
Pearl pulled in players from wherever he could to jumpstart a program pretty much sitting on four flat tires.
That’s OK. Give the energetic and hard-driving Bruce Pearl the order, and he’d charge toward hell with a water pistol.
Oh, Sir Charles
Let’s go back even further.
Charles Barkley in school at Auburn during the mid-1980s rightfully earned his nickname of “Round Mound of Rebound.”
The stories about him always having a pizza around are true, as I clearly remember bumping into him one day on the stairs of Haley Center, him with pizza in hand; and it wasn’t one of those personal-pan sizes he could stuff in a pocket.
So are the stories about his level of play on the court, where he would perform an aerial 360-degree slam dunk against Alabama one night, and lead Auburn to an upset win over No. 1 Kentucky (sound familiar?) another night.
Charles Barkley is bigger now, and his mouth even bigger.
Good for Auburn.
What monetary or tangible value can you put on the night-after-night national exposure that came from his standout display of Auburn banners, balloons and other Tiger swag while Barkley proudly and repeatedly bragged during prime time about his alma mater?
So there is one slice of championship won right there: best overall TV exposure by a commentator.
Nothing was easy
Plenty of potholes dotted the road from 2014 chug-a-lug to 2019 champs. Among them:
That first team or two never could be mistaken for a cohesive unit, on or off the court. Let’s just say the peas and carrots never were on the same plate.
There were rumors about the early role of former Tiger great Chuck Person as an assistant coach, on whether he was a choice more of Auburn influencers or Pearl’s, but who all probably thought it’d be good to have an Auburn bloodline on the staff.
Regardless, Person let them all down in an act of selfish treason when he was caught by the FBI in that player-agent scandal.
Then came a new university president and soon after a new athletic director. Two new bosses to please, and both requiring more than a winning record.
In my first meeting with President Steven Leath, he voiced support for Pearl and the coaching staff, but at the same time made it clear that the support didn’t come with a blank check. The closets still were being cleaned, it seemed, and this from a president who knows about dirty closets himself.
But don’t we all.
Look what’s coming
That 2014-15 Auburn team finished a dismal 15-20 overall, and next-to-last at 4-14 in the SEC out of 14 teams. Missouri was one game worse.
Kentucky finished 18-0 in conference play that year in yet another season it went to the Final Four, along with familiar names Michigan State, Wisconsin and eventual national champion Duke.
Looking ahead: Auburn signed a top-10 caliber class during the last recruiting cycle.
Isaac Okoro is a 6-foot-6, 215-pound, four-star forward from Powder Springs, Ga., and a consensus top-50 player in the country. He scores a lot of points.
Babatunde Akingbola is a 6-8, 220-pound center who likes to own real estate around any basketball backboard.
Allen Flanigan is a 6-5, 200-pound guard who was selected at the No. 1 player in the state of Arkansas.
Tyrell Jones is a consensus four-star guard from Chicago who played prep ball in Orlando. In one game as a high school junior, he knocked down 12 3-pointers and scored 40 points.
Jaylin Williams is a 6-7 forward from Nahunta, Georgia. The four-star shooter had consecutive high school games of scoring 44 points; followed by a 51-point, 10-reboud, six-block game.
Add this group to the veterans who’ll still be around, and Auburn looks to have more fun ahead.
The walking winners
The 2018-19 Auburn team?
They are indeed history-makers, beating that storied Kentucky team, beating Kansas, beating North Carolina, bringing home the school’s first Final Four banner and making a strong argument that they ended the season as the best team in the nation.
But amazingly, commentators around the country may have opined more instead about the class and dignity this group has shown since its heartbreaking last-game loss.
It is this classy character that best represents Auburn University and the Auburn Family, and it is this display that should long generate the most pride.
Finally, the peas and carrots are on the same plate.
Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @troyturnernews.