Bruce Pearl returned a call late Tuesday, quickly apologized that it was late Tuesday, then explained how his phone died in the middle of a long day of work. That's why he hadn't called earlier. Pearl's battery had died while he was making plans to travel to South Carolina to help ensure countless convenience stores get the products they need despite a computer malfunction that's reduced him to manually creating orders.
"It's a really unusual situation," Pearl said. "But that's what we're having to step in and do."
This is now life for the former Tennessee basketball coach.
He's the vice president of marketing for the H.T. Hackney Company -- a Knoxville-based wholesale distributor in the convenience store industry. H.T. Hackney has 28 divisions in 24 states; one of them is South Carolina. And that's where Pearl is right now. He's in South Carolina grinding, strategizing, motivating and competing.
"When I was coaching, my assistants and I would teach, train and game plan, and now I'm doing the same things in the business world," Pearl said. "So my juices are flowing as far as competing. We have great competition, and I like what I'm doing. I'm so grateful for the opportunity, and I really do like it because what I'm doing now is kind of like coaching."
But it's not coaching.
I know that.
You know that.
Bruce Pearl knows that, too.
So while he's found a niche in the business world and shown he can be an entertaining college basketball analyst on ESPN, the smart money has Pearl returning to the sideline at some point. The only real questions are when and where. And those are questions worth exploring now because -- I wonder if you realize this? -- the three-year show-cause penalty the NCAA levied against Pearl expires one year from Friday.
Bruce Pearl still thinks about that afternoon all the time. The date was Sept. 20, 2008. Tennessee hosted Florida at Neyland Stadium for a football game. Pearl hosted three recruits, most notably Aaron Craft, at his home for a cookout that was in violation of NCAA rules. By now, you know the details. Somebody snapped a picture of Pearl and Craft. The NCAA eventually got a copy of the picture that led to an investigation that led to the end of his otherwise overwhelmingly positive six years at UT.
"I let so many people down," Pearl said. "I let my family down. I let my coaches down. I let our fans down. I should've just been strong enough at the barbecue to say, 'You 90 people can be here but you five or six can't.' I should've done that. But I didn't. So I obviously relive that all the time. And when I was asked about it, I handled it wrong."
"I panicked," Pearl said. "We had an investigation that we thought was supposed to be nothing. None of us had attorneys because all we thought we were going to be answering for was a few [excessive] phone calls. Next thing you know, they ask us about some things [we didn't know were coming], and we panicked and didn't tell the truth."
That was the killer.
Most agree that Pearl and his staff would've survived had they simply acknowledged the cookout because it would've resulted in little more than secondary violations, a black eye but not a bullet wound. But the assistants were caught trying to cover for Pearl, then Pearl was caught trying to cover for everybody. None of it worked. Pearl was ultimately charged with unethical conduct -- not for the cookout but for lying to an NCAA investigator about the cookout. He was fired and given a three-year show-cause penalty that expires next August. His assistants all got one-year show-cause penalties that expired last August.
Two of the assistants -- Steve Forbes and Jason Shay -- returned to Division I coaching last month. Forbes is on staff at Wichita State. Shay is on staff at North Dakota. So there is life after a show-cause penalty, and most industry insiders expect Pearl to be presented with opportunities next March despite his show-cause penalty lasting until Aug. 23.
Because he's really good at coaching basketball.
That's sometimes easy to forget.
What Pearl accomplished at Tennessee was unprecedented for that program. He made the NCAA tournament all six seasons, advanced to the Sweet 16 three times, the Elite Eight once. He beat Bill Self and Kansas when the Jayhawks were ranked No. 1. He beat John Calipari and Memphis when the Tigers were ranked No. 1. He was 3-1 against Billy Donovan's two national-championship teams at Florida. He took a roster that got Buzz Peterson fired from Tennessee in 2005 and won enough games with it in 2006 to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament while energizing a fan base that was previously indifferent to men's basketball. Consequently, Pearl remains a remarkably popular figure in Knoxville, proof being how he and his wife, Brandy, co-chaired an event that raised more than $1 million for the UT Cancer Institute after he had already been fired by the school. It was and still is the only million-dollar fundraiser in Knoxville's history. It's evidence of Pearl's ability to rally people, even in exile.
Rest assured, some AD somewhere will be anxious to bring that to his campus.
As he should.
Yes, Pearl messed up. But, in the grand scheme of things, his sins aren't the type of sins that will make him unhireable. So my guess is a school with a strong football program and mostly irrelevant basketball program will recognize that Pearl flourished immediately under similar circumstances at Tennessee and, next March or April, try to lure him back to the coaching profession. The school could then essentially petition the NCAA to get the three-year show-cause lifted early while arguing that Pearl would've already missed three seasons of coaching. If successful, great. If not, so what? All that would mean is that Pearl would be limited in how he could recruit through the summer, but it wouldn't prevent his staff from evaluating prospects in April and July, and, most important, it wouldn't prevent him from sparking enthusiasm on the day of his introduction.
So what is Pearl looking for in a next job?
I asked him.
He answered this way.
"It's going to need to be somebody that has the vision that Tennessee had," Pearl said. "Tennessee had a vision to try to get its men's basketball program to the level of its football program and where Pat Summitt had the women's basketball program. That was Tennessee's vision. They said, 'We're winning in everything else. We want to do it in men's basketball, too.' So that would be the job I'd want -- a job where somebody has that vision. It would almost need to be a school that's won a national championship in football or baseball. Somebody who's done it and wants to try to do it again in men's basketball. And I'm not saying I can win a national championship. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying it would need to be somebody who wants to try to do those things. Let's upgrade the facilities and schedule [national opponents] and engage the fans and be relevant. Just be relevant. That's what we did at Tennessee. I wanted Tennessee to matter to Kentucky fans. I wanted Tennessee to be a game Kentucky fans circled. We did that. And that's the kind of thing I would like to try to do again."