OPELIKA, Ala. — After his fifth game as an Auburn Tiger, Charles Barkley cried.
Barkley had just suffered his first college loss, an 86-79 defeat at Tennessee. The future NBA Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist wasn’t used to being on the wrong side of the scoreboard, so he broke down in front of some puzzled teammates.
“They were like ‘Dude, are you all right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, we lost,'” Barkley said Monday at the Bruce, Barkley and Basketball Golf Classic. “They were like ‘Are you going to cry every time we lose?’ and I said, ‘Dude, I lost like two games in high school. Every time we lost, of course I cried.’
“I remember the conversation. They were like, ‘We’re used to losing around here.’ I remember that. And I said, ‘That’s gonna change.’”
Barkley brought that change. He led Auburn to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 1984 — the start of a five-year streak for the Tigers. But he didn’t do it alone.
“If you remember when I came to Auburn, we weren’t good,” Barkley said. “It’s a process. No. 1, you have to learn how to win. No. 2, you have to get good players. And my third year is when it kicked in for us. So to me, I say in three years we’re going to be a good basketball team.”
Auburn had a few high points after Barkley’s departure for a superstar NBA career, but that old losing feeling in basketball has been around his alma mater for most of the last couple of decades.
Now Bruce Pearl, the man tasked with changing that like Barkley did under Sonny Smith, is entering that crucial third season on the Plains.
Pearl’s staff — one that includes Barkley’s old Auburn teammate, Chuck Person — recently brought in a recruiting class that was ranked No. 25 nationally by 247Sports and has the country’s No. 3 ranked class for 2017.
That’s a major amount of improvement in the eyes of Barkley, who was blunt about Auburn’s talent level before Pearl arrived.
“I think sometimes what people don’t understand is there’s a reason somebody got fired,” Barkley said. “(Auburn) wasn’t any good. So it takes time. Everybody thinks you can just come in and we’re going to start winning.
“No, we still got the s—ty players the other coach (who) got fired had. So he’s finally got some players.”
Barkley is pleased with the progress of the Tigers under Pearl. He showed his support over the weekend by helping him raise money for the basketball program in a golf fundraiser at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail’s Grand National course in nearby Opelika.
“This is a fundraiser for Auburn basketball,” Pearl said Monday. “Next year, we’re taking a foreign trip. You can take a foreign trip every four years. That’s a pretty big-ticket item. So it’s good to have that. There will be improvements to the arena, improvements to the locker room … It’s just, from a standpoint of developing our program, we’ll need that stuff.”
Pearl hopes that off-court progress through the fundraising will coincide with more wins in that big third season Barkley references.
The talent level has been raised, but there are several major challenges ahead. The Tigers’ tallest scholarship players top out at 6-foot-8, and they could start as many as four freshmen this season.
“I’ve never, never coached a teammate as a head coach or as an assistant that is as young as this team,” Pearl said. “It’s going to present with us physical challenges … We’ve got to take advantage of what we have. So what do I do? I do the same thing Charles Barkley does. I think I’ve always been honest with our fans.
“Watch them play hard. Watch them compete. Watch them get better. Watch them win some games they’re not supposed to win. Win the games we’re supposed to win and know that there’s hope. There continues to be really good hope because of the good, young players in our program.”
Barkley sees the hope in the talent level of Pearl’s young team. It’s similar to what he saw when his own Auburn teams turned the corner in his junior season and got closer to the Big Dance.
“Listen, I have great faith in Coach Pearl and everything I thought would happen is happening,” Barkley said. “If you remember when I came to Auburn, we weren’t good. And it’s a process … I think he’s probably ahead — he’s got more good players than we had.”