Bruce Pearl was always one of the most media-savvy basketball coaches, and now that he is a member of the media, he is even more attuned to that universe. So Pearl knows full well that his name is popping up all over social media these days, thanks to disgruntled fans who want him ride into town and save their floundering programs.
Start with fans of Pearl's alma mater, Boston College, which has gone 51-65 in three-plus years under Steve Donahue and is now mired in last place in the ACC. Pearl's name is also being linked to several SEC schools whose coaches appear to be on shaky ground. And though the man who replaced him at Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin, is only in his third season and is unlikely to be fired, the Volunteers' underwhelming performance this season has prompted enough speculation that a columnist at The Tennessean felt compelled to write a column in December that was headlined "Bruce Pearl Is Not in Tennessee Vols' Future." That, however, did not prevent the launch of a pair of Tennessee-based Twitter feeds -- @BringBRUCEback and @BringBackBruceP -- dedicated to producing that very scenario.
On the one hand, it's hard to imagine Pearl returning to Tennessee, which fired him in March 2011 after receiving a Letter of Inquiry from the NCAA that charged Pearl for violations committed during the basketball season. Those violations occurred on top of the discovery the previous summer that Pearl had lied to investigators about a barbecue at his house that ran afoul of NCAA rules. Five months after he was dismissed, the NCAA levied Pearl with a three-year show-cause penalty.
On the other hand, the notion of Pearl coming back to Tennessee is no less plausible than the idea of Bobby Petrino returning to coach football again at Louisville, which he did earlier this month. It's only natural that Pearl would appear atop any fan's most-wanted list. He has, after all, been a winner wherever he has gone. He won a Division II national championship at Southern Indiana, he took Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet Sixteen in 2005, and in his six years at Tennessee he never missed an NCAA tournament and went to three Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight.
Pearl is gratified that the public is willing to forgive him for his past sins, but his overriding reaction to the chatter is to feel deep empathy for the men who occupy those jobs. Pearl has been there, done that, and he knows how unpleasant it can be.
"During my last year, my job and the jobs of my coaches and their families were debated nationally, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody," he told me on the phone last week. "Coaches read it, coaches' wives read it, players read it, recruits read it. So my message to the fans is, stop it. Take that passion you have and go to the games. Put it into the program and help your program come back and finish strong."
On the other other hand, it is equally plausible to imagine Pearl never coaching again. He happens to have a very nice life. He still lives in Knoxville with his second wife, Brandy. His four children all live in town or within driving distance. During college basketball season, he keeps himself busy while working as an analyst for ESPN. In the offseason, he serves as a vice president of marketing for H.T. Hackney Co., a Knoxville-based food services company. He is also still immersed in the many charitable causes to which he has been dedicated since he was hired by Tennessee in the spring of 2005. That's partly why he remains such a beloved figure in town despite his ignominious exit from UT. When his friend Don Nelson offered him a job coaching the Dallas Mavericks' NBA Developmental League team shortly after he was fired, Pearl turned him down because he didn't want to leave the area. "This is home," he said. "Plus, being a divorced dad, I couldn't take my kids with me, and I didn't want to break up the family. I had already put them through enough by getting fired."
Even so, Pearl knows he could be coming to a fork next spring when the annual coaching carousel starts to turn. Though his show-cause penalty does not expire until Aug. 23, 2014, that would not preclude a school from hiring him. The school would simply have to explain to the NCAA why it should not be penalized for doing so. Though it is not common, it is perfectly within the rules for a school to employ a coach under such circumstances. For example, UCF coach Donnie Jones is coaching despite being hit with a three-year show-cause penalty in August 2012 for a series of major recruiting violations within that program.
At 53, Pearl is still a relatively young man, and he remains flush with his usual charisma and energy. While he insists that his bitter departure from Tennessee will not drive him back into coaching -- "I don't feel like I need to prove anything to anybody," he said -- he acknowledged that he has not totally expunged the bug from his bloodstream.
"There are things about it that I miss," he said. "I miss the players. I miss the camaraderie with my coaches. I miss trying to come up with strategies and game plans against the best coaches. I miss some of the passion that you have on a college campus, making a difference in young people's lives. I miss all that, but if I don't coach again, I won't feel like I didn't finish the job. It's going to take a really great opportunity for me to get back in it."
Indeed, Pearl revealed to me that he has received several serious inquiries from Division I schools to be a head coach, but as he put it, "the opportunities were not at the level that I would be interested in." Though Pearl made close to $2 million a year at Tennessee, he reached that income level relatively late in his career, and because the school fired him with cause, it did not have to pay him the remaining six years of his contract. "All my money was in the future," he said. "I definitely have to work for a living."
"I'm enjoying television more this year because I think I'm getting better at it," he added. "The question is, can I be as good at the things I'm doing now as I was at coaching? If I can get really good at this, then I can see myself staying in broadcasting. I'm in the process of figuring that out."
So this is where Bruce Pearl stands: A smile on his face, a few bucks in his pocket, happy with the path he is traveling yet unsure as to where it might lead. If he gets back into coaching, great. If he never coaches again, life will go on. After all he has been through, he's just glad he has so many good options.
"I'm not trying to get the phone to ring," he said. "But if it does ring, I'll pick it up and listen."
Other Hoop Thoughts
- Louisville played two games last week without point guard Chris Jones, the junior college transfer who is sidelined with a strained oblique muscle. Louisville also played its two best games of the season last week, routing Houston by 39 points at home and beating UConn by 12 on the road. I do not believe this is a coincidence. Jones is a gifted and speedy little guard, but he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. The problem is, so does Russ Smith. And last I checked, there is only one basketball.
- Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis has impressive stats, but what is most impressive about him is his poise. He always seems to know just when to set up his teammates and when to get his own buckets. The word that comes to mind is preternatural.
- So Michigan loses Mitch McGary for the season, and a few weeks later it is in first place in the Big Ten with a 5-0 record following a win over Wisconsin in the Kohl Center? John Beilein, ladies and gentlemen.
- As for Wisconsin, I wouldn't say the Badgers have been exposed during this two-game losing streak, but it appears this team is not the defensive juggernaut many thought. Indiana and Michigan both made better than 51 percent of their shots. Even when Wisconsin's defense is effective, it is not all that disruptive, so the Badgers don't get much scoring off their defense. Fixable problems, but they're still problems.
- And can we stop saying that this is the best team Bo Ryan has had at Wisconsin? This is just his next team. They're all really good, because he's really good. No need to get carried away.
- Still no word about when Florida freshman Chris Walker will be allowed to play. He's a McDonald's All-American who is serving a de facto NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits as a high school player, yet the situation is receiving absolutely no media coverage. It's befuddling.
- Looks like Michigan State's Gary Harris is finally healthy after that nagging ankle injury at the start of the season. Two weeks after he hung 26 points on Indiana, he went for 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals in a win at Illinois. He's also getting back his defensive spark, which is where he really excels. If the Spartans could get Adreian Payne to follow suit, they will really be in business.
- You're starting a college basketball team, and you can have any player in America. Who are you taking? I'm not talking about the NBA draft, I'm talking about winning a college game, right now. It's tempting to answer Doug McDermott, but the truth is, I'd take Joel Embiid, and I wouldn't really have to think about it.
- I still don't think Wichita State will enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. But I have to admit, after watching them blow out Indiana State, which had come into the game tied with the Shockers for first place in the MVC, I am less confident. It's natural that the Shockers would get up for a much-anticipated game. If and when they lose, it will probably be to an inferior team who caught them on a bad day.
- My goodness the wheels have gotten wobbly for Iowa State, which lost its third straight at Texas on Saturday. It's hard to say DeAndre Kane's still bothered by that ankle injury considering he played 36 minutes, but he did shoot 3-for-12. Remember, this is a team that does not start a player taller than 6-foot-7. They rebound with passion, but they are defensively vulnerable in the paint. Texas' frontcourt of Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley combined for 39 points and 18 rebounds.
- Not sure I've ever seen a great player flop as much as Marcus Smart. Even LeBron stands in awe. I understand why opposing fans can't stand Smart, but every single one of them would love to have Smart running their team.
- San Diego State forward Josh Davis is this year's Kenneth Faried. He's only 6-8, 215 pounds yet he's third in the nation in rebounds at 11.5 per game. He's all hustle and guile, and a joy to watch.
- What a tremendous story ESPN aired on Saturday about Baylor sophomore forward Isaiah Austin, who revealed that he is blind in one eye and wears a prosthetic on top of his damaged eye. I often criticized Austin for under-performing despite his size and apparent physical gifts. You won't hear me doing it again, that's for sure. I applaud him for having the courage to share his secret, and I am rooting hard for him to succeed.
- Mike Anderson is in his third season as the coach at Arkansas, and his teams have won a grand total of two SEC road games. Both were at Auburn. The Razorbacks followed their thrilling home win over Kentucky by losing at Georgia on Saturday. If you can't beat mediocre teams on the road, you don't belong in the NCAA tournament. Period.
- So let me get this straight: Chane Behanan, who was dismissed from Louisville for repeatedly failing to abide by university policy (wink, wink) and has enlisted John Lucas as his substance abuse counselor, is about to sign with Colorado State, which just happens to be located in a state where marijuana just became legal for recreational purposes. On what planet is that a good idea?
- It doesn't always show up in the stat sheet, but Alex Poythress is playing a hugely important role for Kentucky right now. His body is finally in the type of condition it needs to be in for him to take advantage of his explosiveness, and Poythress is starting to adopt the requisite mentality to boot. Just one more in a very long list of reasons to believe Kentucky will be a legit Final Four contender come March.
- Here's the deal on St. John's: They have too many good defenders who can't score and too many scorers who can't defend. Might be the most disappointing team in the country (at least this week).
- Seriously, can we have just one conversation about a college player without commenting on his draft status? Just one?
- The most important takeaway from Duke's rout of N.C. State is the fact that Mike Krzyzewski played 10 guys double-digit minutes. He even threw in freshman forward Semi Ojeleye for six minutes. This is going to be a major strategy for Duke moving forward. Coach K understands that his team lacks overall size and is not a very good halfcourt defensive team. The only way to remedy that is to pick up defensively fullcourt, and the only way to do that is to use a deep bench. Of course, the most important part of that strategy is that the opponent was N.C. State. That always helps.
- I'm still really bummed that Colorado point guard Spencer Dinwiddie is gone for the season. It's not just that Dinwiddie was the team's leading scorer. He was its leading leader. I still think the Buffaloes will make the NCAA tournament, but remember that the selection committee has to assess how this team plays without Dinwiddie. Because that's the team Colorado will take into the NCAA tournament.
- I don't know about you, but I've got room for both Wear twins on my all-disappointment team.
- What's the over/under for how many teams from the Big East play in the NCAA tournament? I'm thinking four.
- Looks like Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber can still coach a little bit. If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention all these years.
- Speaking of Weber, I was interested to hear him say on an ESPN podcast last week how important it was for his team to be ranked, because that meant that their games were far more likely to be included in the nightly highlights. He called being ranked a big "commercial" for a program. Just further evidence to support my argument a few weeks ago about why polls really do matter in college basketball, even if they don't decide anything.
- I don't like teams that get younger as they go to the bench. That's a huge problem right now for Illinois, whose first four players off the bench are all freshmen. By contrast, Louisville's junior forward Wayne Blackshear is good enough to start, but Rick Pitino has been bringing him off the bench, and it has been working.
- In Marquette's overtime loss to Butler on Saturday, the Golden Eagles' two shooting guards, 6-3 senior Jake Thomas and 6-3 junior Todd Mayo, combined to shoot 1-for-14 from three-point range. Reminds me of what Dean Smith used to say: "I don't need an outside shooter. I need an outside maker."
- Keep your eye on Cal freshman guard Jabari Bird. He is a natural scorer who had 17 points in a loss to Syracuse in November and has been shooting 38 percent from three-point range. Bird missed four games because of a sprained ankle, but he returned last week for the Bears' home games against Washington and Washington State. Bird only had a combined six points in those two wins, but if he can get back into shape and become a viable weapon off the bench, the Bears will likely become the primary challenger to Arizona in the Pac-12.
- Indiana's loss at home to Northwestern shows the perils of relying on its point guard to be the primary scorer. Yogi Ferrell has been terrific, but he had nothing in the tank against Northwestern, and he shot 2-for-14 from the floor. That's why the Jigsaw Man tried to give back Maurice Creek to the Hoosiers. (And let's be honest, Will Sheehy has been a disappointment as well.)
- I still don't like the baseline bench setup at Vanderbilt. And I've never gotten a decent explanation as to why it's done that way.
- Attention Missouri's Ernest Ross: You are a muscular, quick, 6-5 guard who is making 30 percent from three-point range. You should never -- and I do mean never -- have a game where you attempt more three-pointers than free throws. Any questions?
- Dunno if you've noticed, but the Atlantic 10 is playing some pretty good basketball this season.
- Hoop Dreams is the best basketball movie of all time and it's not even close. If you have not seen it, please do so immediately. After you finish reading this column, of course.
- UConn junior forward DeAndre Daniels is first team all-X factor. When he turned in his best game of the season (23 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks), UConn got its best win of the season at Memphis. When he was a no-show (three points on 1-for-9 shooting in 23 minutes) at home against Louisville Saturday night, the Huskies lost. He is maddeningly inconsistent, but when he's good, he makes all the difference.
- Tough blow for Louisiana Tech, which lost leading scorer Raheem Appleby for 6-to-8 weeks because of a badly sprained ankle. I was impressed enough with the Bulldogs' 15-3 start, which included a road win at Oklahoma, that I ranked them No. 25 on my AP ballot last week. But they lost their first league game Sunday afternoon at Southern Miss.
READ MORE: Five games to watch ... A few minutes with Richard Pitino ... Seth's Top 25
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Creighton at Villanova, Monday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Some of the luster was taken off this matchup when Creighton lost at Providence Saturday night, but these are still the best two teams in the Big East. Obviously, the Bluejays will have the best player on the floor, but Villanova has much better overall talent. I like the progress of Wildcats' center Daniel Ochefu.
Villanova 79, Creighton 70
North Carolina at Virginia, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Both these teams need a win, but since the Cavaliers are home, they need it more. For a team like North Carolina, which has struggled in its halfcourt offense this season, the task of playing a grinding defensive team like Virginia on the road is a wee too tall.
Virginia 55, North Carolina 50
Kansas State at Texas, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Both teams have been a pleasant surprise, which is why the Big 12 is ranked No. 1 in the conference RPI rankings. These Longhorns are young, but they really seem to like each other, and they have terrific overall depth and balance.
Texas 76, Kansas State 73
Wisconsin at Minnesota, Wednesday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
Wisconsin might not be quite at desperation time, but it is definitely in a rut. Williams Arena is not a great place to get back on track, but I'll take my chances going with Bo Ryan backed against a wall.
Wisconsin 66, Minnesota 60
Iowa at Michigan, Wednesday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
The resurgent Wolverines have a chance to prove their worth at Crisler Arena. I think they're worth a lot.
Michigan 80, Iowa 75
A Few Minutes With ... Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino
SI.com: You had the biggest win of your coaching career Thursday night over Ohio State. What was that like?
Pitino: Ever since I took this job, people kept saying to me, "We haven't seen the real Williams Arenas in a while." That was the first time where the building was really alive. For our guys to get a win like that after we were picked 10th in the league was important, because that was an opportunity to prove we belonged.
SI.com: What about you? Did that prove that you belonged in the Big Ten? You're only 31 and this is just you're second season as a head coach.
Pitino: I don't look at it like that. Maybe it's because people have compared me to my father my whole life. I'm a guy with 30-something wins, and there are guys in this league with six or seven hundred. I'm just trying to prepare our guys as much as possible for each game.
SI.com: OK, since you're used to being compared to your father, tell me how you're most like him as a coach, and how are you most different?
Pitino: I hate comparing myself to a Hall-of-Famer, but he's my father so that's going to happen. I try to run my program the way he does it, just through holding everyone accountable, working hard, trying to be as organized as possible, trying to motivate everybody. We're different during games. The way he is able to focus on every single possession with such intensity as if the world is about to end, I could never coach that way.
SI.com: He once told me that you're better at this age than he was, because you're humble, whereas he didn't become humble until he was 50. Do you agree?
Pitino: Remember, while I was growing up he won a national championship at Kentucky, then he went to the national championship game the next year, then he signs this contract to be president of the Celtics. Everyone said he would set the NBA on fire and that didn't happen. So I kind of realized that you can be on top one day and on the bottom the next.
SI.com: Minnesota and Louisville are going to play each other in Puerto Rico to open next season? Why did you agree to that?
Pitino: It was ESPN's idea. We played in Maui this year and I thought the exposure and the way we played was really good for our program. In order for us to get to the level of a Michigan State and Indiana, we need to be on TV.
SI.com: How many comments do you get about how young you look? I know Josh Pastner gets a lot of them.
Pitino: Pastner probably looks a little younger than me. One thing I can tell you is that I'm in no rush to get any older.
SI.com: You have one 2-year-old daughter and a son on the way. How has becoming a dad changed your life?
Pitino: There's something to be said in this type of business, where you get wrapped up in your own little world about winning and losing and recruiting, and you come home and your daughter doesn't care. She's just excited to see you and hang out with you. It's the greatest release you could ever have.
SI.com: How is your first winter in Minneapolis treating you?
Pitino: (laughs) When you move here, everybody says you gotta embrace the weather, and nobody does it better than Minnesotans. It could be 20 degrees and you see people outside running and walking. The good thing is that even when it's cold, there's usually a bright sun. So at least it's not dreary.
This Week's AP Ballot
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Michigan State (3)
4. Florida (5)
5. Wichita State (6)
6. Villanova (7)
7. San Diego State (8)
8. Kansas (16)
9. Oklahoma State (12)
10. Iowa (10)
11. Kentucky (14)
12. UMass (15)
13. Cincinnati (17)
14. Michigan (NR)
15. Wisconsin (4)
16. Oklahoma (20)
17. Ohio State (11)
18. Memphis (18)
19. Louisville (21)
20. Iowa State (9)
21. St. Louis (22)
22. UConn (NR)
23. Pittsburgh (NR)
24. Kansas State (NR)
25. Texas (NR)
Dropped out: Creighton (19), Xavier (23), Colorado (24), Louisiana Tech (25)
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on this week. My decision to drop Wisconsin as far as I did was influenced by Indiana's loss to Northwestern in its next game. Usually I don't penalize a team too much for losing a road game, but if Northwestern can win in Assembly Hall, and if Michigan State can dominate the Hoosiers there, then the Badgers should have gotten out of there with a W.
I also felt that when you lose at home to an undefeated team in your league, that team should be ranked ahead of you. So welcome, Michigan, back to my ballot. Then again, considering the Wolverines get Iowa (at home) and Michigan State (on the road) this week, it might be a short stay.
I also want to add a note about Wichita State. I think this is a really good team, but I don't think it's fair to move a team up the rankings when it is beating teams in a far inferior conference. So until further notice, I will not rank the Shockers higher than No. 5. We'll see how long I can maintain that stance if they keep winning, as I suspect they will.
Kansas earned its promotion, but I left the Jayhawks behind San Diego State because of the Aztecs' win in Allen Fieldhouse. It's the same reason I kept Memphis ahead of Louisville despite the Tigers' loss at home to UConn last week.
My trolls in Pittsburgh might be surprised to see me enter the Panthers on my ballot despite their loss at Syracuse. But Pitt has now stood toe-to-toe with two pretty good teams in Syracuse and Cincinnati, and even though they lost both times, they passed the eye test.
Speaking of Cincinnati, it didn't seem right to see the Bearcats at No. 13 this week, but when I went back and looked at their schedule, I was more impressed than I thought. The Bearcats' wins over Pitt (neutral) and Memphis (road) look even better now than they did at the time. And their two losses (at New Mexico and neutral court vs. Xavier) don't look too shabby, either.
I also sense that UMass is headed for a comeuppance. The Minutemen are skating by on luck, having won three of their last five games by five points or less.
Finally, I left Duke out for the second straight week. Yes, the Blue Devils looked might impressive in routing N.C. State, but everybody looks good against the Wolfpack. Duke's big week comes next, when it plays at Pitt and at Syracuse. If the Blue Devils can earn a split and look good doing it, they'll probably be back on my ballot.