Charles Barkley was in the first few years of his post-NBA career as a TV analyst for TNT when the former Round Mound of Rebound felt compelled to call the Tennessee men’s basketball offices.
About a decade ago, Barkley — the incomparable personality that he is — left a message for then-Volunteers head coach Bruce Pearl, himself just a year or two into establishing Tennessee’s basketball program as a true postseason contender.
On the message, which lasted roughly 10-12 seconds, were the kind of words of encouragement that still provide Pearl an emotional lift to this day:
“Bruce Pearl, this is Charles Barkley, you do not need to call me back. I’ve just been watching your teams play and I love the way you coach and I love the way your teams play.”
“I have it on an old cell phone,” Pearl said Friday evening from the Auburn Men’s Basketball Reunion at the Moore’s Mill Club in Auburn. “And there were times when we get down on ourselves (as coaches) and we lose confidence in what we do, and I’ve listened to that message a time or two. I’d never met him, I didn’t call him back because he said don’t call me back, but I kept that message.”
The message was unprompted and without agenda. It was simply a few nice words from one passionate basketball fan to another.
“I just liked the way his teams competed,” Barkley said Friday while in town for the reunion. “Teams always take up the personality of (their) coaches and you can just tell he’s a very competitive guy, and man, I’m excited.
“I do that to some coaches all the time but I didn’t know he was going to be the coach at Auburn at the time.”
Now in his first offseason as Auburn’s newest head coach, Pearl has his sights set on returning the Tigers’ program to the status that Barkley and former coach Sonny Smith helped establish during their three years together on the Plains (1981-84). And he’s doing it with a major assist from the Hall of Famer from Leeds, Alabama — 100 miles north.
“Here’s the deal with Charles. A lot of guys talk the talk, Charles Barkley walks the walk,” Pearl said. “He said, ‘OK, this is my new coach and I’m going to support the new coach.’ He just doesn’t say it though, the very first time we have something, he’s here.”
Still, it was that message that has stuck with the lively and emotional coach even when he wasn’t coaching any more.
It was a message that undoubtedly helped provide Pearl comfort during his NCAA-imposed sabbatical away from college basketball while serving out a three-year show-cause penalty stemming from an incident in 2008 that Pearl freely admits was a costly error in judgment. Pearl, who was hired at Auburn on March 18, still has about two months remaining on his active show cause, which restricts him from having any contact whatsoever with prospective recruits but expires Aug. 24.
“Listen, I’m excited by Bruce, I think he’s a terrific coach,” Barkley said. “I think he got screwed by the NCAA. He did not get a fair deal with the NCAA. I’m not a big NCAA fan as you can tell, but what happened to him was really unfair.”
But while the message was the first time the two large basketball personalities had come into contact with one another, it certainly won’t be the last as both Barkley and Pearl are intertwined into returning Auburn basketball to prosperity.
“He knows I’m here I know he’s there and it’ll just evolve,” Pearl said. “I’ve got a lot to do and he’s got a lot to do. If he needed anything, like with his charity work, I’d be there for him.”
At the reunion — which brought together several hundred former players, coaches, managers and anybody else involved in the program dating as far back as WWII — Pearl and Barkley were the main attractions, even while another former Auburn teammate of Barkley’s and current assistant coach under Pearl (Chuck Person) celebrated his 50th birthday Friday.
Still, both Barkley and Pearl would tell you the reunion was about more than any individual — it was about reminding everyone of what Auburn basketball is capable of, and where it could be again.
“It’s special because when people think about Auburn basketball, we’re not certain what the brand is,” Pearl said. “The brand should be Charles Barkley, the brand should be Sonny Smith and five straight (NCAA Tournament appearances) or Cliff Ellis and three out of five years. The brand should be Chuck Person and Aubrey Wiley. It should be Vicki Orr or Coach Ciampi. People should know these folks.”
And Pearl’s doing everything in his power to honor the many faces of Auburn’s on-court successes, including redesigning the walls leading into Auburn Arena with large pictures of the aforementioned greats.
Of course, while reunions and wall decorations are nice, the real testament to Pearl’s impact at Auburn will be made on the floor, where the Tigers have seriously underperformed in recent years. Under former coaches Tony Barbee and Jeff Lebo, Auburn suffered through an 11-year NCAA Tournament drought and a 5-year postseason absence.
But if the world-renowned “Sir Charles” Barkley has anything to do about it — and he does — Pearl will have all the support he could need, especially from Barkley.
“Obviously we’re always going to be a football school, I’m not an idiot to think we’re never going to (not be) a football school,” Barkley said. “But when I was here at Auburn for three years, my last two years we had amazing crowds, we had amazing support, I would like to see that again.”
Alex is the Auburn University Sports Writer for the Opelika-Auburn News.
Follow him on Twitter at @AUBlog for the latest in Auburn Sports.