June 28, 2014
A good time was had by all: Bruce Pearl, left, Cliff Ellis, center and Charles Barkley share some laughs at Auburn's basketball reunion
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Charles Barkley didn't know Bruce Pearl back then, not 10-or-so years ago, not when Pearl was coaching at Tennessee and Barkley was on the other end of the telephone.
Charles Barkley called and left a message. Bruce Pearl remembers.
"He says, 'Coach Pearl, this is Charles Barkley, you do not need to call me back.' He said, 'I've been watching your teams play.' He said, 'I love the way you coach and the way your teams play.'
"I saved that message. I have it on an old cell phone. There were times, believe me, we lose confidence in what we do, and I've listened to that message a time or two. I absolutely still have it today."
Charles Barkley, former Auburn great, and Bruce Pearl, Auburn's new basketball coach, reminisced about that phone call Friday at the Auburn letterman's basketball reunion, the largest ever, that attracted around 80 former Auburn players that covered more than 70 years.
The reunion was for everybody, from the old to the current players, to former managers and former head coaches Sonny Smith and Cliff Ellis and their assistant coaches.
Bruce Pearl brought together the generations of Auburn basketball like never before.
"It's about the people at Auburn who love and care about Auburn basketball. That's why it's such a great celebration," Pearl said.
Smith, still remembered fondly from his Auburn coaching days from 1978-89, was pleased with the feel of the night.
"Somebody asked me before the hiring: 'What does it take to win at Auburn?' I said it takes a coach who promotes himself, it takes a coach that promotes his program, it takes a coach who can recruit starting in the state of Alabama, it takes a coach to reunite the former players, it takes a coach to get the student body involved, it takes a coach that can go out in the community and sell the product that hasn't been sold the way it should be. Little did I know, that I was drawing a picture of a guy named Bruce Pearl," Smith said.
"I've never seen a guy who is more positive."
And on this night, more welcoming.
Cliff Ellis, who coached Auburn from 1994-2004 returned to fond memories and a table of his former players. It was the first time he's been back since being let go 10 years ago, and he said he could think of reasons why he shouldn't return, including the fact he's coaching Coastal Carolina. Pearl insisted he return.
"When Bruce called me, I said, 'Bruce, I'm not ready,'" Ellis remembered. "He said, 'Your players think you're ready, and it's time for you to come back. Cliff, your group is making a statement for the things I've tried to do. I need you to help me to get this thing going.'
"The most important thing that inspired me that when you sent out a letter to everybody was that all the guys who didn't finish their education would be able to come back and get that education."
Ellis turned to Pearl and said, "I applaud you for that."
"There are two guys who need to finish. He said, 'Consider it done.' That's the coach Auburn has, and that's something I really appreciate."
On the court, Ellis said, "Bruce will do a good job. I'll pull for him and help him in any way I can. Things need to get back to the way they were. I think Bruce can energize people."
Reggie Sharp was one of Cliff Ellis' guys, and in a basketball era that included the likes of Chris Porter and Mamadou N’diaye, Doc Robinson, Scott Pohlman and Sports Illustrated covers, it was a Reggie Sharp shot that beat Alabama at the buzzer that can't be forgotten.
Ellis christened that night "The Legend of Reggie Sharp." The legend and his former teammates were with Cliff Ellis this night.
"It means a lot because in our basketball careers and our lives, he helped shape them one way or another," Sharp said.
Time has passed. He made that shot in 2001.
"It's always fun to come around here because people talk about it," Sharp said. "I think the shot gets a little longer every year. It was only about 34 feet. They think it's about 54 feet. I let them think that."
"It's been a long time. But I can remember it like yesterday. There are a lot of great memories at Auburn."
Bruce Pearl likes that. He remembered the success of Ellis and Smith. He wants to make sure the good things about Auburn basketball are not forgotten. He rattled off the names of Barkley and Chuck Person, Joe Ciampi, Mamadou N’diaye and Chris Porter and Marquis Daniels and others.
"One of the things you're going to start to see when you come around Auburn Arena are more pictures of Charles Barkley and Chuck Person, and Vicki Orr, and Coach Ciampi and Coach Smith. That's the one thing I'm going to do for those guys," Pearl said.
"My guys will tell you: I've been talking about the tradition of Auburn basketball. I'm not trying to do anything that Mamadou didn't do, or that Chuck didn't do, or Chris didn't do, or Marquis."
Some of those were Ellis' guys who found success in quick order.
"Two Sweet 16s, an SEC championship, three NCAA appearances, so it can be done," Ellis said as he turned to Pearl.
"Now, don't go .500 because the next year they fired me. I had one .500 team, and outta here."
That brought laugher.
"It wasn't funny at the time," Ellis said with a chuckle on himself.
Anyway, he was glad to be back in Auburn and for Pearl.
"I said I'm going to come back because of my players and Auburn, and I'm going to come back for you," Ellis said. "And I said, 'I need you to do me a favor.' And he said, 'What's that?' I said I want you to play me. It got real quiet. But you know what? He said yes. We're going to come back, and it'll be the only time I'll pull against Auburn."
Auburn versus Coastal Carolina in early December in Auburn Arena. It's on the books.
Athletics Director Jay Jacobs was telling the story how he flew in March to Bristol, Conn., and ESPN to offer the job to Pearl, who was doing commentary for the network. There was hesitation. So Jacobs followed him, by plane, to Tennessee and talked to him in Knoxville. Pearl asked his family. They approved.
"He has definitely hit the ground running," Jacobs said. "For a guy to invite back former coaches and all the players speaks volumes for his personality. I just appreciate the former lettermen coming back. They're excited. We're all excited about basketball.
"Bruce has been a tireless worker making sure the former players are involved in the basketball program. It takes the head coach to have open arms. Nobody wants to come around if they don't feel welcomed, and Bruce certainly makes everybody feel welcome."
Charles Barkley, former player, felt welcomed, warming up to the crowd as the night went on.
"I'm not like some alumni," Barkley said. "Trust me, Auburn has enough alumni who are trying to run the football program. I'm going to support Bruce. Whatever he needs from me, I'm going to support the program. I want to support my team and my school. That's it. Plain and simple.
"When I came here in 1981 they talked to me about bringing the program back, and I said you can always go to North Carolina or Duke where they always have tradition. Sonny talked to me about starting our own tradition… I want these guys to do it again."
"There's no reason," Pearl said, "that we can't be successful right away."
Auburn hasn't been too successful lately. But Pearl remembers when the Tigers were good.
"I walked into Auburn Arena and I asked, 'Where is that Sports Illustrated picture of Chris Porter?' It's got to be around here some place. It's got to be around here big as life. Because I remember Auburn basketball being ranked No. 1 in the country. I want my guys to remember it wasn't so long ago that Auburn basketball was ranked No. 1 in the country, and that's because of the players who are here tonight."
Pearl thanked Smith and Ellis for their contributions.
"Sonny has been a great friend. He's reached out to me," Pearl said.
And he remembered "the great coaching of Cliff Ellis" that had Auburn in the NCAA Tournament.
"I know," Jacobs said, "we can all pull together and support men's basketball, and with this type of enthusiasm Bruce has, we can do great things. We can do great things that Cliff and Sonny had done before."
Smith said he's been impressed.
"I've never seen Auburn as excited as they are right now," he said.
Pearl turned from the past to the present, and motioned to his basketball team.
"They are going to represent you well," he told the crowd.
But he knows what the preseason predictions will be.
"That basketball team right there is going to be picked near the bottom of the SEC. That basketball team right there will finish nowhere near the bottom of the SEC," Pearl said.
"I'm not asking you to be patient. We've been patient long enough.
"My goal is earn the respect, and as much as anything to earn the respect of some of the great coaches I'm following: Coach Eaves, coach Sonny Smith, coach Cliff Ellis. My goal is to do enough here to earn those coaches' respect."
Chuck Person, former Auburn great, former Charles Barkley teammate, current Auburn assistant coach, was supposed to be the last speaker. Barkley would have none of it.
"Pass the ball!" Barkley was still demanding three decades later. "He never passed the ball when we were in college!"
Both would shoot their way to NBA stardom. Before then, "we became great teammates," Person said.
"This guy," Barkley said, "was a great player."
Barkley turned serious, and said he hated to, but talked of Person's mother passing away. The funeral is in Brantley on Saturday. Barkley will be there.
"Sweet lady," Barkley said.
"I love you man. We've been together for 30 years."
Barkley then closed the show.
"I've been so blessed. I've had an amazing life. I'm an old geezer now. I came here in 1981. Auburn is amazing."
Barkley couldn't leave it there. He turned to Pearl and reminded him of what Ellis said.
"If you go .500, we're going to fire you, too," Barkley said.
"Hey," Pearl shot back, "if I go .500 and you fire me, have you seen my buyout? You'd have to donate a lot of money."
"I've got that," Barkley said without missing a beat, "in my back pocket."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine