Auburn wins historic battle of Jewish coaches in SEC championship

Four teams with Jewish coaches played in college basketball tournaments on Sunday.

Auburn defeats Florida in the SEC championship game on March 17, 2024. Credit: Zach Bland/Auburn University Athletics.
Auburn defeats Florida in the SEC championship game on March 17, 2024. Credit: Zach Bland/Auburn University Athletics.

The Southeastern Conference men’s college basketball championship game turned into the Jewish coaches invitational.

Bruce Pearl’s fourth-seeded Auburn University (Alabama) team defeated sixth-seed University of Florida, coached by his former protégé Todd Golden, 86-67 in Nashville on Sunday.

The head-to-head Jewish coaches matchup with the SEC title on the line came on the same day that two other teams with Jewish coaches reached conference championship games.

Pittsburgh-based Duquesne University, coached by Keith Dambrot, beat Virginia Commonwealth University 57-51 in the Atlantic 10 championship, and Temple University (Philadelphia), led by Adam Fisher, lost 89-65 to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the American championship.

Among the 361 Division I programs, there are 12 Jewish head coaches, or about 3% of coaches. (Some 2.4% of Americans are Jewish, per some population estimates.)

Sunday’s game was Pearl’s second SEC tournament championship. Auburn also won in 2019 and became the first Alabama team to reach the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Pearl’s teams have also won three regular season SEC championships, two at Auburn and one at University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

With Auburn pulling away in the game’s waning moments, Pearl could be seen with tears in his eyes. He said after the game that he was thinking about his father, who died in August.

“He held me to a high standard, and I hold my players to a high standard,” Pearl said.

During the game, Pearl and other coaches sported pins with U.S. and Israeli flags. The Jewish coach has been outspoken in defending Israel and routinely speaks about the Jewish state at synagogues and churches in the region. He is involved in several Israel-related nonprofits.

Earlier this season, Auburn Hillel joined Athletes for Israel and members of the Auburn basketball and baseball teams to make gift bags for soldiers and families in Israel.

In 2022, Pearl took his Auburn team on a Birthright-styled summer trip to Israel where it played three Israeli teams, including the national team, in the first such visit to Israel by a Power Five program.

Pearl developed the trip with the hope that other universities would follow, and this past summer University of Arizona and Kansas State University made a similar trip, adding games in the United Arab Emirates to make it an Abraham Accords trip.

Pearl was founding president of the Jewish Coaches Association, which holds an annual gathering at the Final Four. He hopes to be too busy for that this year, as he told the team upon arriving in Nashville, The goal, he said, was nine straight wins—three to win the SEC, six to win the NCAA.

Goldene Medina

Golden grew up minutes from the Jewish Community Center in Phoenix, Ariz., where he went daily day after school. A U.S.-Israeli dual citizenship, he played for Maccabi Haifa from 2008 to 2010, after graduating from Saint Mary’s College of California.

“Being in Israel was a life-changing experience for me,” Golden said. “I learned so much there, and it really helped me as I transitioned into coaching.”

“I still have a lot of good friends there and thank goodness they have been safe,” he said, of the current conflict.

Pearl and Golden first crossed paths in 2009, when Pearl coached the U.S. basketball team at the World Maccabiah Games, held every four years in Israel.

Auburn Pearl
Coach Bruce Pearl with players from Auburn University and the Israel U-20 squad before their game in Israel in August 2022. Credit: Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics.

That year was the first time the United States took the gold medal, and Golden was on the team along with Pearl’s son, Steven, who is now an associate head coach at Auburn.

Golden was an assistant coach for Pearl at Auburn from 2014 to 2016 and credits the Auburn coach with being a mentor.

“I owe so much to him for all he did for me. He has really helped in my acclimation process to the SEC,” Golden said. “Bruce is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and his work ethic is something that I emulate.”

When he was hired at Florida in 2022 after being head coach at the University of San Francisco, Golden said of his former boss, “It will be a unique experience to compete against him.”

The University of Florida is said to have the largest population of Jewish students of any public university in the country, with about 6,500 Jewish undergraduates and around 9,500 overall.

Golden has great relationships with the students and the campus Chabad house. “I want them to know I’m there for them,” he said.

Auburn is a four-seed in the NCAA tournament, facing Yale University in the first round on March 22 in Spokane, Wash.

A victory would mean a match against the winner of the University of Alabama and San Diego State University on Purim, for the head coach whose Hebrew name is Mordechai.

Florida is a seven-seed, facing the winner of the University of Colorado Boulder-Boise State University play-in game on March 22 in Indianapolis.

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