AUBURN — Bruce Pearl would rather be at an NCAA tournament site this weekend.
On this day last year, the Auburn men’s basketball head coach was in Salt Lake City, where Tigers survived New Mexico State and throttled Kansas on their way to the first Final Four appearance in program history.
Instead, Pearl is in the same place you probably are right now — at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire country to a near-halt. The SEC and NCAA tournaments were canceled; Auburn University’s spring semester has moved off campus and 100% to online instruction; and the bars, restaurants and beaches in the state of Alabama have been ordered to close.
These are strange times for everyone, bur particularly for college coaches. Pearl’s job is not one that offers much free time. There is always a game to coach, a practice to oversee, film to watch or a recruit to visit.
Right now, there is none of that. The season ended abruptly March 12. Auburn Arena is closed. Most of the athletes are at home. Pearl and his staff are working remotely. They’re still able to recruit, but only by phone — the NCAA has suspended all on-campus and in-person visits through at least April 15.
In past years, Pearl would take time after his team’s season was over to go on a trip to Florida with his wife, Brandy, to visit his parents there. But they’re not taking that trip this year, for obvious reasons.
“These are uncharted waters from a standpoint of what we’re doing, when you go from 100 miles an hour and working every day,” Pearl said on a teleconference with reporters Friday. “With the exception of maybe Christmas or a couple days around Christmas, we worked almost every day from October.”
So what is Pearl doing now that he’s not able to go 100 miles per hour? Well, for starters, he has encouraged staff and players to help out with community service, while practicing social distancing. They’re involved with the Jason Dufner, Tim Hudson and Bruce Pearl Family foundations, as well as Auburn City Schools, Church of the Highlands and the Dream Center, which are doing their part to provide food to families who rely on the school system for those meals.
“Today and tomorrow, we're probably going to be giving out about 2,000 of those boxes of food,” Pearl said Friday. “And several of my student-athletes who are in town have also jumped in and helped. There's a little bit of some community service going on with the idle time.”
At home, Pearl is trying to keep himself busy. He plans to do a little bit more reading than usual, though he declined to share what books he has on his list. He’d like to master the Big Green Egg grill, because he loves to cook and knows he and his wife, Brandy, will be eating at home more than ever. He recently upgraded his bike and plans to enjoy the weather outside and take walks as much as he can. He has already begun making extra efforts to call and text people in order to stay in touch with friends and family during a time when he might not be able to go see them in person.
During some of those conversations, Pearl said, friends have asked him things like, “Hey, are you watching this series?” or “Hey, are you using that HBO special?”
“I don't even know what they're talking about. I didn't even know those things,” Pearl said. “I thought you like put the TV on and there were sports, news, maybe a movie. I guess they've had these series, like 20 episodes of things, and they've been going on for a few years?
“I just kind of became aware of that. I've been working for a few years now, so I'm just getting caught up to speed.”
Again, Pearl would certainly rather be coaching Auburn in the NCAA tournament than at home trying to decide whether he should binge-watch “Breaking Bad” or “Billions.” But what’s happening now is much bigger than basketball.
It has caused everyone to step back and look at life in a different way, including the Auburn men’s basketball coach who turned 60 on Wednesday.
“The last week, we’ve seen things,” Pearl said. “We’ve seen dramatic changes, and how something like a pandemic can affect the entire world. Trying to be safe, trying to be healthy, trying to do the right things, so we can get through this and then come out on the other side somehow better off, wiser, and having us all return to some form of our normal life.
“I think it gives you great appreciation for the moment, in the sense that you never know when that moment’s not going to be available to you.”