AL.com, Julie Bennett
January 30, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Auburn coach Bruce Pearl doesn't bother pretending that his return to Tennessee is just another game.

Pearl, who led Tennessee to NCAA tournament appearances in each of his six seasons as the Volunteers' coach, is coming back to Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday to coach against his former team for the first time since his 2011 firing.

''From the minute I walk in that building and get off the bus, there's going to be a camera in my face,'' Pearl said. ''It'll walk me into the bathroom. That's just how it is. ... They're going to want to know every time I scratch my nose or every little emotion that's going through me. I understand that.''

There should be plenty of emotion for those cameras to catch. Although he was fired amid an NCAA investigation that landed Tennessee's program on a two-year probation, Pearl remains so popular in Knoxville that fans circulated an online petition last season to bring him back as the Vols' coach.

''I'm not Dick Vermeil, but I can get watery,'' said Pearl, who is holding a charity fundraiser in Knoxville on Friday night. ''I can't control it. It just happens.''

Pearl returns to Knoxville three months after former Vols football coach Lane Kiffin came back to Tennessee as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

When Kiffin returned to town, banners around campus criticized the man who had left Tennessee for Southern California. Pearl figures to get a much warmer reception.

Kiffin ''left on his own will and he kind of left us in the lurch after one year,'' said Michael Turner, a board member of the Big Orange Tipoff Club and a season ticketholder for over two decades. ''Pearl was forced to leave. ... The fact (is) he did so much for basketball here, and so many people are so thankful for that. For most people, that was the heyday of Vol basketball.''

Pearl went 145-61 at Tennessee and led the Vols to an NCAA regional final in 2010 and regional semifinal appearances in 2007 and 2008. Pearl received a show-cause penalty from the NCAA in 2011 that kept him away from coaching for three seasons before Auburn hired him in March.

Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall, who has his own cloud hanging over him as the NCAA investigates his tenure at Southern Mississippi, says he'd be ''shocked'' if Pearl doesn't receive a ''great ovation.''

''Everything coach Pearl did here - from winning games to playing for championships to going to the Elite Eight, all those things should (be) and need to be recognized,'' Tyndall said. ''In fact, we sell a lot of those things in our recruiting. I think people will be excited to see him.''

Pearl, who didn't coach any of Tennessee's current players, isn't sure how fans will react.

''First of all, when they go, `Bruce,' some will be booing and some will be `Bru-ing,' '' Pearl said. ''I don't know which one it's going to be.''

Pearl's showmanship helped make Tennessee basketball an event around town. The Vols' home attendance soared from 12,225 the year before his arrival to a peak of 20,483 in 2008-09. He's having a similar impact at Auburn, where home attendance is up 32.4 percent.

''I think he's going to enjoy being back and seeing everybody from the arena managers to former trainers to ushers,'' said SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw, who played for Tennessee from 2003-07. ''Anybody who was around Bruce felt like he was a good friend and (that they) could approach him. If anything, he'll have to probably try to make sure he spends enough time with his team in the locker room before the game versus hugging and shaking hands with a bunch of old friends.''

Pearl is trying to sort out those emotions as he prepares for a game that neither team can afford to lose. Tennessee (12-7, 4-3 SEC) is seeking to end a two-game skid. Auburn (10-10, 2-5) has dropped three straight.

''From the minute we get in that huddle to start playing, there won't be any different emotion as it relates to coaching, as it relates to the game,'' Pearl said. ''My preparation prior to (it) has been the same. It's been consistent.

''I'm sure that in the moments leading up to tip, that it'll be difficult.''

---

AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Alabama, contributed to this report.

You May Like