CHARLESTOWN — When Bruce Pearl came to Charlestown to try to recruit Chad Gilbert to play for him at the University of Southern Indiana, he brought his appetite with him.
“Coach ate like five pounds of crab legs,” Gilbert said with a laugh earlier this week.
When Pearl left his house that night Gilbert, who at the time was transferring from Indiana State, was impressed not only by Pearl’s voracious eating ability, but also the man himself.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to play for this guy,’” the Charlestown athletic director recalled.
He did. The former Pirates star played two seasons (1994-95 and 1995-96) for Pearl at USI, winning the NCAA Division II national title with the Screaming Eagles in ‘95.
Saturday, Gilbert will watch Pearl try to continue his quest to become the first coach to ever win NCAA D-I and D-II titles when his Auburn Tigers (30-9) face Virginia (33-3) at 6:09 p.m. in the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. In the second semi Michigan State (32-6) will take on Texas Tech (30-6) at approximately 8:49 p.m. The championship game will be Monday night.
“He’s an excellent coach, a master motivator and a great friend,” Gilbert said of Pearl. “You can guarantee when Auburn takes the floor they’re going to feel like a million bucks, because BP makes you feel like a million bucks.”
Gilbert remembers Pearl making him and his teammates feel that way in the locker room at halftime of the '95 title game despite the fact that UC Riverside led USI 39-21 — after being up 30-8 early in the game.
“[I said] if there’s anyone who doesn’t think we’ll win this game, leave now,” Pearl recounted to Sports Illustrated in 1995.
No one left and the Screaming Eagles rode a 50-point second half to a 71-63 win and the national championship.
“When you’re in that locker room, everybody’s got that faraway look in their eyes, but coach just reeled everybody in,” Gilbert said. “He knew what to say. He knew what to say to push our buttons to get the absolute best out of us.”
It’s an ability that Pearl put to use again eight years ago when the Jeffersonville girls’ basketball team that Gilbert was coaching prepared to play Penn in the Class 4A state championship game.
“In 2011 we are finishing up walkthru and film in the hotel conference room….BP calls on speaker phone and coaches up our kids before the championship game!! You could see goosebumps on the arms of the people in that room and our Kids responded!!” Gilbert tweeted Sunday.
The Red Devils went on to beat the Kingsmen 43-29 to win their first state title.
“He’s always been a winner,” Gilbert said of Pearl. “But to be a winner you have to go through some adversity. We went through some adversity down there with our teams and he’s been through some adversity [since then].”
Pearl spent nine years at USI, then four at Milwaukee before taking over Tennessee in 2005. He guided the Volunteers to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances (2007-08) followed by a 2010 trip to the Elite Eight, where they lost 70-69 to Michigan State.
The next season, though, Tennessee went 19-15 and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Three days after that defeat the school fired Pearl, who prior to the season admitted to lying to the NCAA about having high school recruit Aaron Craft to his house for a cookout, after finding out about additional violations. Five months later he was given a three-year "show-cause" penalty by the NCAA.
Three years later, however, Pearl was hired by Auburn. The Tigers were under .500 in his first two seasons on the job before going 18-14 in 2016-17. Last season they went 26-8, but were upset 63-62 by eventual Final Four participate Loyola-Chicago in the second of the NCAA Tournament.
This season Auburn won nine of its first 10 games (its lone loss was to Duke), but struggled in late January and early February, falling to 16-8 overall and 5-6 in the Southeastern Conference after a 60-55 loss to Mississippi on Feb. 13. Since then, though, the Tigers have won 15 of their last 16 games (their lone loss was a 80-53 blowout at Kentucky on Feb. 23), including their last 12 row.
“It’s fascinating to see how his teams develop,” Gilbert said. “They just play so hard and so unselfish. They sacrifice their game in order for the success of the team.”
Sunday, Auburn avenged two earlier losses to UK with a 77-71 overtime win over the Wildcats in the Midwest Region final.
“He’s always been a great motivator, now he’s good at Xs and Os,” Gilbert said. “He’s good at identifying match-ups. If you looked at that game the other night [against Kentucky], he went at [UK freshman Tyler] Herro every time.”
The victory over Kentucky came just two days after the Tigers routed top-seeded North Carolina 97-80 in the Sweet 16. Late in that win, though, Auburn sophomore forward Chuma Okeke sustained a horrific knee injury. Afterward, during an interview on CBS, Pearl was moved to tears when asked about Okeke.
That was no surprise to Gilbert.
“The one thing about him is he genuinely cares about you,” Gilbert said. “To say that was genuine, absolutely.
“When he’s on TV crying, my eyes water up because I know he means it.”
After Auburn's win over the Wildcats, Gilbert texted Pearl.
“I said, ‘This is BP time,’” Gilbert recalled. “He said, ‘Chad, I appreciate the confidence. We’ve just got to find a way.”
Maybe just like USI did 24 years ago.
“It’s a lot of fun to relive those memories and I was lucky enough to play for one of the best coaches in the nation,” Gilbert said.
One who's trying to accomplish something no other head coach has ever done.
You can probably guess who Gilbert will be rooting for tonight, and Monday — he hopes.
“Go War Eagle!” he said.