Auburn's Bruce Pearl spent 3-year exile from college hoops working at a grocery distributor – 'I wasn’t sure I’d ever coach again'

Only a few days after the NCAA effectively banished him from college basketball for three years, Bruce Pearl pondered an intriguing career move.

The Dallas Mavericks had put on a full-court press to lure the fired Tennessee coach, offering to make him the G League’s highest-paid head coach for one year and to consider him for a place on Rick Carlisle’s staff thereafter.

“It was a real ticket to the NBA,” Pearl told Yahoo Sports.

And yet, for days, Pearl agonized over whether to accept it.

Over dinner and drinks at his friend Bill Sansom’s house in August 2011, Pearl confessed that he was reluctant to leave Knoxville. The newly divorced father of four told Sansom he needed a job to pay his bills and provide for his family, but he hated the idea of moving over 800 miles from his children, the two youngest of whom attended high school in Knoxville at the time.

Sansom, a wealthy businessman and former University of Tennessee trustee, listened patiently to Pearl’s dilemma before proposing a potential mutually beneficial solution. The CEO of the Knoxville-based wholesale grocery distributor, H.T. Hackney, asked Pearl, “Have you ever considered going into business?”

In some ways, Sansom’s job offer at Pearl’s darkest moment was a byproduct of their tight-knit friendship. They met in improbable fashion four years earlier when Pearl became the only Jewish person to join Sansom’s bible study at a Knoxville Presbyterian church. After that, Sansom said, “Bruce learned a lot about Jesus and the New Testament and we learned a lot about Bruce.”

Even so, Sansom says he’s too shrewd a businessman to hire a friend as a charity case. After Pearl lost the Tennessee job by lying to NCAA investigators about recruiting violations that he committed, Sansom saw Pearl as a good gamble because many of the qualities that made him a successful coach translated to the business world.

Feb 22, 2020; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl celebrates with his players after the Tigers beat the Tennessee Volunteers at Auburn Arena. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl celebrates with his players after the Tigers beat Tennessee at Auburn Arena in February. (John Reed/USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

Pearl revived Tennessee’s long-dormant men’s basketball program by winning and selling. The former Boston College marketing major did what stodgier coaches wouldn’t, from touring dorms, to sumo wrestling fans, to painting his chest orange and cheering shirtless in the student section.

Out of Sansom’s faith in his friend arose a job that became Pearl’s life preserver when he was adrift and floundering. H.T. Hackney provided Pearl stability and allowed him to still have a team to call his own while in basketball exile.

In return, Pearl dug deep roots at H.T. Hackney and treated the job as if it could be his last one. There was a time not that long ago when Pearl assumed he’d still be H.T. Hackney’s vice president of marketing in March 2022, not leading a 27-win Auburn team back to the NCAA tournament.

“I wasn’t sure I’d ever coach again,” Pearl said. “I wasn’t sure an opportunity would ever present itself. Obviously God had a plan for me to wind up at Auburn, and part of that plan was for me to stay in Knoxville in a little bit of an uncomfortable situation as a fired basketball coach.”

It's all about business, motivating for Bruce Pearl

Nickie Rhoads assumed she was being pranked.

In December 2011, the receptionist at her office asked Rhoads if she would speak to a man named Bruce Pearl who had just called to make an appointment.

Skeptical yet intrigued, Rhoads picked up the phone and said hello. Almost instantly, the lifelong Tennessee fan recognized that the distinctive voice on the other end of the line belonged to the former Vols men’s basketball coach.

“I don’t know if you know me, but I used to coach UT,” Pearl began.

“Oh, I know who you are!” Rhoads responded.

Rhoads’ company owns and operates 38 convenience stores across Tennessee and Virginia. Pearl wanted to arrange a visit to develop relationships with the company’s key executives in hopes of persuading them to switch to H.T. Hackney when their existing grocery wholesaler contract expired.

While Rhoads’ company ultimately stuck with their wholesaler, it wasn’t because Pearl lacked energy or initiative. The former Tennessee coach took time to visit every office to introduce himself, take pictures and sign autographs.

“I can see why players want to play for him,” Rhoads said. “It was a really fun day.”

Building relationships with potential customers and strengthening ties with existing ones were two of Pearl’s main responsibilities at H.T. Hackney. He also helped train, manage and motivate H.T. Hackney’s salesforce and customer service team, making sure their efforts aligned with the company’s overall strategies.

When Pearl later accepted jobs calling games and doing studio analysis for ESPN, and hosting a college basketball show on Sirius XM radio, he never allowed his role at H.T. Hackney to suffer.

During basketball season, he’d often fly to ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut, on Thursdays and return on Sunday evenings. Inevitably, he’d still be at his desk inside his H.T. Hackney office by 7 a.m. on Monday.

(Special to Yahoo Sports)
Nickie Rhoads, a Vols supporter, remains a fan of former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. (Special to Yahoo Sports) (Yahoo Sports)

Howard Morris worked as a sales rep for a company that supplied H.T. Hackney with mops and brooms. Watching Pearl work the room at a trade show or address his team at a sales meeting was a thrill for Morris because it gave him a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what made the coach an effective motivator and recruiter.

“He’s a salesman, whether he’s selling someone on playing ball for him or selling someone on going with Hackney,” Morris said. “When I saw him, he was 100 percent every time, whether it was shaking hands and giving autographs or going to a meeting and selling that Hackney was the best company for your store to buy from.”

The first time they met, Morris confessed that he and his wife are such passionate Vols fans that they named two of their dogs Pat and Pearl. Quipped Pearl in response, “When people name their dogs after you, you know you made it.”

Pearl made Morris feel like they were lifelong friends anytime they spoke even though in reality they were merely work acquaintances. One time, after one of Morris’ sons broke his arm, Pearl signed the cast. Months later, when Pearl ran into Morris again, he immediately referred to his son by name and asked, “How’s that arm doing?”

While Pearl enjoyed teaching the nuances of basketball to the TV and radio audience, he insists it was his work in the grocery wholesale industry that was most rewarding. At H.T. Hackney, he felt like he was once again leading a team.

“My entire life I had been employed as a teacher, a coach and a leader,” Pearl said, “someone who brought people together and earned a living as a result of their efforts and their performance. So the H.T. Hackney job, more than ESPN and more than XM radio, I utilized my coaching, teaching and leadership skills to motivate, train and support others. That was fulfilling for me.”

Even as his three-year NCAA penalty neared an end, Pearl swears that he didn’t have one eye on a return to coaching. He didn’t know for sure if he’d ever get another shot to coach at college basketball’s highest levels. It actually caught him off guard when schools began showing interest in him.

Pearl's first interview at Auburn was a near disaster

As he prepared to hunt for the next coach of Auburn’s long-irrelevant men’s basketball program in March 2014, former athletic director Jay Jacobs made a check list of the qualities he valued most. He wanted someone who had achieved sustained success in a power conference, someone who was unfazed by a rebuilding project, someone who could energize an apathetic fan base and have a presence in the community.

He wanted Bruce Pearl.

Pearl was Jacobs’ top candidate when he and colleague David Benedict boarded a private jet to Bristol on March 14, 2014. At around 10 that night, after Pearl had finished a full day of NCAA tournament studio analysis, Jacobs and Benedict interviewed the former coach at a Bristol hotel.

Jacobs expected to get Pearl the salesman, the showman, the extrovert. What he got instead was a man seemingly wracked by indecision and self-doubt. Not once did he pitch himself as the best candidate for Auburn. He explained why he wasn’t sure he’d ever coach again so often that it was almost like he was bracing himself for that possibility.

“Generally when you interview coaches, it’s 100 percent them trying to sell themselves to you,” Jacobs told Yahoo Sports. “That was not the case with Bruce. He was carrying a lot of remorse and guilt for his family, for his staff, for his former players, for the University of Tennessee. He couldn’t let it go.

“It was really a little concerning. I had taken myself to the place that this was the guy Auburn needs right now, yet when I left that interview I was no longer convinced of that because of his own personal battles.”

In the wee hours of the morning, Pearl called his wife, admitted the interview didn’t go well and reiterated that he wasn’t sure if coaching was for him anymore. She told him that when he woke up in the morning, he should put on two jackets. In one, he’d be the vice president of marketing at H.T. Hackney and an analyst at ESPN. In the other, he should visualize himself as Auburn’s new basketball coach.

“The next morning,” Pearl said, “the Auburn jacket felt good.”

When Pearl showed up for a second interview that Saturday morning, Jacobs said it was as if he was a completely different person. He spoke excitedly about the potential of the Auburn job, about having the chance to make a difference in young people’s lives again, about how Jacobs wouldn’t regret it if he took a chance on Pearl.

Jacobs was ready to slap an orange and blue striped tie on him and hire him on the spot. Pearl told him he wanted to accept but wouldn’t until he flew home the following Monday, spoke to his wife and kids in person and made sure they were comfortable with the move.

“If she’s OK and my kids are OK, we’re all in,” Pearl said.

Three days is an eternity in the middle of a coaching search, but Jacobs agreed to wait. Pearl rewarded him not only by accepting the job but by jumping into a mosh pit of 100-plus fans who greeted him when his flight landed at the airport in Auburn.

In Pearl’s first year on the Plains, he sold Auburn basketball as well as he ever did any goods in three years at H.T. Hackney. He crashed an Auburn marketing class to promote the school’s version of Midnight Madness. He dressed up as then-Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn. He even donned a blonde wig and unleashed his best version of Taylor Swift’s “We’re Never Getting Back Together” during a lip sync battle with Auburn’s women’s soccer coach.

Eventually, Pearl rebuilt Auburn to the point that the basketball program sold itself. The Tigers won a share of the SEC title in 2018, advanced to the school’s first Final Four in 2019 and this year secured an outright league title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

A few weeks ago, when Auburn visited Thompson-Boling Arena for a key late-season SEC clash against Tennessee, Sansom attended the game to watch his former vice president of marketing. Though Sansom is happy to see Pearl back on the sideline where he belongs, the H.T. Hackney CEO has fond memories of Pearl’s three years in the private sector.

“A lot of people thought, ‘What are you hiring him for? What can he do?’” Sansom recalled. “Well they would be surprised what he can do. He was a great asset for us.”