There he goes again. Bruce Pearl's got his shirt off. It's Labor Day, 85° and sunny, and America's favorite bare-chested basketball coach is the picture of topless satisfaction in orange board shorts, black sunglasses and a white Gilligan hat as he pilots his 29-foot Sea Ray on Fort Loudoun Lake outside Knoxville. The small army onboard, a dozen strong—including Bruce's four children: Jacqui, 21; Steven, 20; Leah, 12; and Michael, 11—is enough to turn the Tennessee coach's rare day off into a five-hour-long Pearl jam.
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2007 issue
"Work hard, play hard," Pearl announced while stockpiling provisions earlier, and he hardly disappoints. One minute he's dragging Leah and a friend on a tube, pulling them shriekingly close to a bloated dead catfish. ("What'd you think of that fish, honey?" "That was disgusting!") The next he's tending his grill, cooking hot dogs for the hungry masses. ("Hebrew National, baby. They're kosher!") And now, after tying up alongside some friends' boats in Party Cove, it's time to relax. As Soulja Boy's Crank That thumps on his monstrous eight-speaker stereo, the 47-year-old Pearl cannonballs off the customized deck, engulfing his guests in a low-grade tsunami.
Within seconds he's floating on a pink Styrofoam noodle, a cold Bud Select in one hand and a melting Krispy Kreme doughnut in the other. Bliss. "Man," Pearl says, taking a pull from his longneck, "does it get any better than this?"
If you're a long-suffering Tennessee men's basketball fan, the answer may just be yes. Two years after taking over one of the nation's most underachieving programs, Pearl has fashioned his Volunteers into this season's SEC favorite (sorry, Florida and Kentucky) and a threat to win the national title. That he has done so without a single McDonald's high school All-American is a testament to the power of his personality and his throwback full-court press. "Our style of play suits me because I'm a pain in the ass," Pearl says. "I'm annoying. But our fans love it, and the opposing fans don't. I always said I wanted to be the least popular coach in the SEC. I just had no idea I could do it in two years."
In an era in which uptight martinets stalk the sidelines, Pearl is also college basketball's clown prince, the 21st-century heir to the late Jim Valvano. As the preseason officially begins this weekend with Midnight Madness festivities on campuses across the country, ask yourself: How many Final Four--caliber coaches...
... take their players tubing on their pleasure craft? When he's not hosting the guys at his house on NFL Sundays, Pearl is hauling them out onto the lake. "He interacts with us," says sophomore forward Tyler Smith, a transfer from Iowa. "Every weekend he's like, 'Let's go on the boat. Come over to my house.'"
...regularly lift weights with their players? Pearl's bench-press max is 285 pounds—more than many of his Vols can handle. "The first time he came in and did that, I felt terrible," says Dane Bradshaw, last year's senior captain. "You're done with your set, and he starts adding 45-pound plates to each side and just killing it. You're like, Oh, God, nice first impression. This 45-year-old coach is outbenching me, and I've been working three summers on this."
... unabashedly bleed school spirit, standing on chairs in campus dining halls to promote upcoming games? Pearl has done this for years, but last January he took that support to a new level, trading his shirt for a coat of orange body paint and joining his players in the student section to cheer on the Lady Vols against Duke. "Who the hell is going to paint his body?" says Pearl's assistant Steve Forbes. "I come out of the tunnel and look up and go, That's my boss right there."
... take their players to a World War II concentration camp? Most teams visit Caribbean islands on their preseason trips abroad. Not Pearl's Vols, whose tour of Central Europe in August included lectures by a Tennessee history professor and a visit to the Terezin camp near Prague. The discussion topics: racism, anti-Semitism, mob mentality. How was the Holocaust allowed to happen? "Sometimes you're faced with a decision, and it may be difficult," says Pearl, the grandson of Jewish immigrants. "Make the right choice. Do it because it's the right thing. So often that's not what happens. People have gone along with the mob."
It's a lesson, Pearl hopes, that a player can apply to any number of scenarios: turning down drugs at a party, studying on a Thursday night, refusing to cheat on a test. Someday, maybe, the player might even choose to become a whistle-blower.
NEYLAND STADIUM, Knoxville, 6:27 a.m.: Yesterday's Labor Day boat ride is already a distant memory as all the Volunteers—players, coaches, managers—gather at the base of what they call the Hill, a 45-degree, 80-yard-long concrete ramp from hell. In the predawn light a blanket of fog hangs over the nearby Tennessee River. Once a week the Vols meet at gate 10 to perform a diabolical chore, sprinting up the Hill as many as 26 times in 26 minutes. Pearl stands halfway up the incline, hands on hips, clapping during the final sprints like a maniacal drill sergeant. "Second-half defense!" he screams, a reminder of his team's collapse against Ohio State in last spring's NCAA South Region semifinals, in which Tennessee squandered a 20-point lead to lose 85--84. "Let's think about it right now! Right now!"
On this day, for a change, nobody vomits at the end. As the players bend over gasping for breath, Pearl paces in front of them. "Where's Florida this morning?" he asks.
"In bed," they reply.
"Where's Kentucky this morning?"
"All right now, on three."
"One, two, three. Team!"
That Pearl sometimes appears to be auditioning for a role in a sequel to Old School doesn't mean Knoxville has become Camp Cupcake. "There's something about him that's borderline crazy, but in a good way," says sophomore forward Duke Crews. "If practice starts at 2:45, he's laughing and joking with you at 2:44. But at 2:45 he gets intense"—Crews snaps his fingers—"and he expects us to do the same. The first time it happened, it kind of had me mixed up."
Work hard, play hard. It helps explain why Pearl reached 300 wins faster than any other active coach except North Carolina's Roy Williams. Or why Tennessee went 3--1 over the last two seasons against the Florida team that won consecutive national titles. Or why the average attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena rose from 12,225 in 2004--05, the season before Pearl arrived, to 19,661 (fourth in the nation) last season.
Pearl's quick fix in Knoxville has already become the template for impatient fans and athletic directors around the country. First he won over his players, installing a freewheeling offense that produced an average of 80.6 points per game and a record of 46--19 over the past two seasons, compared to 29--31 the two seasons before he arrived. ("If you don't enjoy playing pickup basketball, there's something wrong with you," says senior guard Chris Lofton, a national player of the year candidate.) Then Pearl won over the fans. They loved the full-court press, loved the coach's sweat-soaked sherbet-orange sport coats, loved the new fan-friendly gimmicks at home games. (The Vols sometimes run through the crowd during introductions, and they may shake hands with fans as they depart the arena.) And, not least, Pearl won over Pat Summitt, the Tennessee women's coach, whom he calls "the greatest college basketball coach of all time."
The relationship between elite men's and women's coaches at the same university can be notoriously prickly—Exhibit A: UConn's Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma—but Pearl and Summitt have been friends from the moment he flew to Philadelphia to attend the Lady Vols' NCAA regional final the day after taking the job. "It's been awesome," says Summitt, who counts Pearl as the eighth men's coach during her 33 years in Knoxville. "He comes to our games, and I go to his games. I watch his practices, and he watches ours. We share." When Summitt lost Alexis Hornbuckle to a broken wrist before a game at Georgia two seasons ago, Summitt and Pearl met for an hour to discuss how to break full-court pressure without a point guard. And when Pearl decided to use more zone defense in preparation for the deeper three-point line in 2008--09, Summitt taught him the Lady Vols' matchup zone.
These days the two coaches even turn recruiting into a joint project, hosting prospective Vols at Summitt's house for dinner on their official visits. Yet nothing has done more to reveal Summitt's human side than her riposte to Pearl's body-paint adventure: She dressed up as a cheerleader (replete with a feather boa) and sang Rocky Top at a men's game last February. "I have never been so nervous before a basketball game in my life," Summitt says, her steely demeanor dissolving amid giggles. "The response was amazing. People thought it was just neat that Bruce and I are so committed to helping each other."
"It bothered Pat a great deal that it was being said you couldn't win at men's basketball here as long as Pat Summitt was coaching the women," Pearl says. "It just wasn't true. I'm proud that when you look at the top four [men's and women's] basketball programs in the country, it's Duke, North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee. You can now put Tennessee in that group, and you couldn't before."
IN THE SPRING of 1986, soon after Pearl arrived at Iowa as the top assistant to coach Tom Davis, he paid a visit to the family of Hawkeyes swingman Bill Jones in Detroit. Davis's predecessor, George Raveling, had left Iowa to coach at USC, and Jones was ready to follow him. "He was gone," says Jones's older brother, Tony, who was there that day. With one hour to rerecruit Jones, the 26-year-old Pearl unleashed a tour de force, winning over Bill's mother, Christine, in particular. Bill Jones would stay at Iowa. After Pearl left, Christine turned to her family and smiled. "We looked through all the media guides, and we didn't know Coach Davis had a black coach on his staff," she said.
"Uh, Mom," Tony replied, "I don't think Coach Pearl is black."
"No, I think he is," she said. "He's black. Look at his hair and the way he talks."
Tony Jones never did convince his mother otherwise, even after he became Pearl's own top assistant. But Christine was hardly alone. Few people who meet Pearl are ever sure. Is he African-American? Italian? Greek? Eastern European? Welsh? "People think I'm either Greg Brady or Tom Jones," Pearl says. When Pearl went to the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis, a few dozen Hoosiers fans congratulated him on landing the Indiana job, mistaking him for Kelvin Sampson, a full-blooded Lumbee Indian. The ethnic confusion serves Pearl well, letting all his constituents—recruits, parents, fans—reach the same conclusion: No matter what he is, he's one of us. The message of inclusion works both ways. "Look how far we've come in this country when a Jewish man can be coaching in the Southeastern Conference," says Pearl. These days Tennessee basketball isn't just about full-court pressure and triple-digit point totals. It's the sight of sophomore forward Wayne Chism, a 6'9" African-American from Bolivar, Tenn., trading in his white hoops headband for a yarmulke at Leah Pearl's recent bat mitzvah. ("All the players were going around saying, 'Shalom, y'all,'" Pearl recalls.)
This fall Pearl plans to speak at Sunday-morning church services around Knoxville. It's no small achievement for a coach who grew up in the Boston area during a time of racial and ethnic tensions. "I had a very conservative Jewish upbringing," says Pearl, who spoke Yiddish with his grandparents and remembers tying on tefillin (a pair of small boxes containing fragments of scripture) with his paternal grandfather, Jack Pearlmutter, who left Austria in the 1920s, walking and hitchhiking to France and finally boarding a boat to America in Marseille.
Bruce's parents, Bernie and Barbara, legally changed their surname to Pearl shortly before Bruce was born. ("I was a trainee at a store, and the manager used to say, 'Hey, Pearl!'" says Bernie, a semiretired salesman. "Finally I said to hell with this and chopped it off.") The family moved to suburban Sharon, Mass., when Bruce was three, and he grew to excel at football, basketball and baseball while living in the shadow of old Schaefer Stadium in nearby Foxborough. During his freshman year at Sharon High, however, he tore the cartilage in his left knee playing football. Six surgeries later, his dream of following Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg into the Jewish athletic pantheon was over.
"It was a huge hit to my whole persona, my ego, everything," Pearl says. But it also sparked a transformation. He auditioned for the school play and landed a lead role. He ran for student office and won. How many people can say they were voted both class president and class clown? "I never would have done those things had I not lost my ability to be the star athlete," Pearl says. "It made me more tolerant of people's differences." And so, when he could have joined the other Jewish kids at Brandeis or Boston University, Pearl chose to attend one of the nation's most famous Jesuit schools.
"One reason I went to Boston College was to break down stereotypes," he says. "I wanted people to find out I was Jewish and go, 'You don't look Jewish. You don't act Jewish.' And then for me to be proud to say, 'I am Jewish!' And then to talk about the Old Testament and have conversations about how the Last Supper was a seder. Jesus was a rabbi! Jesus was a Jew! We're brothers!"
The BC basketball coach was Tom Davis. He cut Pearl during tryouts, but he remembered a conversation he'd had during the off-season with an admissions counselor, Bill Gerson, about ways to increase student enthusiasm for Eagles basketball. As Davis recalls, Gerson "called me up one day and said, 'I just interviewed a prospective freshman, and I've got your man!'" For the next four years Pearl worked as manager, part-time practice player and summer-camp director while serving as Boston College basketball's answer to Don King. He sold tickets door-to-door in the dorms, tacked up posters around campus and in two 1981 NCAA tournament games even donned the costume of mascot Eddie the Eagle.
In March of Pearl's senior year, Davis called with a proposal: Would Pearl be interested in following him to Stanford as a graduate assistant? Pearl's father drove up to listen to Davis's pitch, and he was skeptical. With his business degree, Bruce had a slam-dunk future as a salesman, not a basketball coach. "What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?" Bernie asks. "Where was he going to succeed more? One was a lock. And I'll be up front with you: There are not a lot of Jewish coaches. I still say to him, 'When are you going to get a real job?'"
Pearl left for Palo Alto anyway and became Davis's top assistant after a year there, at 23, just as Stanford was enjoying its first winning season in 20 years. Four years later, in '86, Davis and Pearl moved to Iowa, where their first team (with Roy Marble and B.J. Armstrong) rode Davis's full-court press to a 30--5 record and an Elite Eight berth. Meanwhile, Pearl was making his bones as a recruiter, earning the nickname Cadillac Pearl in Detroit. On the advice of a coaching friend who said that Bruce would be taken for a cop in a regular four-door rental car, Pearl pimped out his ride on recruiting visits to the city. "And it wasn't just a Cadillac," he says. "I always got a big four-door Fleetwood."
Pearl was on the fast track. By 1988, when Basketball Weekly named him one of the nation's top assistants, his move to Division I head coaching seemed inevitable. Who could have known that Cadillac Pearl was headed for a decadelong detour to obscurity?
COACHING SUICIDE. The words hung in the air like a papal excommunication, which in a sense they were, coming on national television from ESPN's Dick Vitale. The occasion was the Iowa-Illinois game in Iowa City on Jan. 29, 1990. The topic was Pearl's decision to secretly tape a conversation in which former Hawkeyes recruiting target Deon Thomas seemed to confirm that he had been offered $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to attend Illinois. "My mother begged me not to do it—begged me," Pearl says of the taping, which was legal under Iowa law. "But I was trying to right a wrong, and I got tired of people complaining about all the cheating that was going on in college athletics and not being willing to do anything about it."
Pearl turned the tape over to the NCAA, which ultimately found Illinois not guilty of wrongdoing in Thomas's recruitment but did sanction the Illini for other, unrelated violations. Davis says he supported Pearl's actions in the Thomas case, but in Vitale's eyes, Pearl had violated the coaching fraternity's unwritten code of omert√†, which is adhered to far more strictly than most NCAA statutes. Some Illinois partisans took an even harder line. Pearl can still remember the late-night phone calls to his family's house in Iowa City, the anonymous voice on the other end of the line: You're dead, Pearl.
"Oh, yeah?" he'd reply. "What time would you like to meet me? Bring it on."
In those moments the adrenaline would kick in, and Pearl would revert to the Boston teenager who had a ready response for anyone in Southie who asked him if he was Jewish. "I'd say, I'm Israeli,'" he says. "Which sent a different message: I'm Jewish, but I'm also a tough guy." On two occasions, Pearl claims—once in Chicago, once in Evansville, Ind.—he was physically confronted by Illini supporters. "They were sorry they started it," he says.
As the stress from hate mail and harassing phone calls became nearly unbearable, Bruce's wife, Kim, had a miscarriage. And while Bruce says he received encouraging phone calls and letters from coaches such as Bob Knight and Dean Smith—"not in support of my methods," Pearl says, "but just of the idea that I was willing to stand up and hang in there"—no Division I head-coaching offer came his way. (Winthrop and Brown were the only two D-I schools that even interviewed him.) Finally, in the spring of 1992, Division II Southern Indiana contacted Pearl.
Bernie Pearl still chokes up recalling the phone message Bruce left his parents on that fateful Saturday night. "He'd called earlier and said, 'I probably won't get the job, and I don't blame them—it's in Indiana [near Illinois],'" Bernie says. "Boy, we felt so bad for him. But when we came home that night there was a message. 'Mom, Dad: You know what? I got the job.'"
One of Pearl's first recruits was Stan Gouard, a slick forward from Danville, Ill., just 33 miles from the Illinois campus in Champaign. "I had friends tell me: Why Bruce Pearl? Why would you want to go play for a cheater?" says Gouard, now an assistant coach at Indiana State. "But then they'd meet him and change their minds. They liked the guy." Gouard would go on to win two Division II national player of the year awards, and in Pearl's third season at Southern Indiana his Screaming Eagles came back from an 18-point halftime deficit to win the D-II national title. Pearl moved to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2001, and Tennessee came calling in '05 after he led the Panthers on a breakout run to the NCAA tournament's round of 16. So much for coaching suicide.
Still, it's worth asking: How many other coaches would have caved in to all the threats and whispers and quit the business altogether? "Are you kidding?" says Pearl, who believes he's passed on his toughness to his players. "It's why [the Vols have] been down 22 twice and come back and won. There is no deficit that is too great for us not to come back and win. That which doesn't kill you will only make you stronger. The ability to handle adversity is a great separator in this life. I've faced adversity. I stared it down. I didn't care what people said, and it just made me stronger."
PEARL'S PROGRAM is a family affair: Steven is a walk-on redshirt freshman forward; Jacqui occasionally sings the national anthem at home games; Michael has been a ball boy. And his family is a program affair: Last month Pearl's players were among the first to learn that after 25 years of marriage, he had filed for divorce.
"Fellas, I talk the talk a lot, but I try and walk the walk," Pearl told the Vols in announcing the split. "I ask God to forgive me every single day because I fail him all the time, and I'm going to ask you to forgive me too."
Rare is the occasion when Pearl doesn't feel inadequate to some degree. It's a Jewish thing, he says. If his methods sometimes seem controversial or over-the-top, he says, at least he means well. "It's like when I go crazy on the bench [with the players]," he says. "Don't pay attention to how I'm delivering the message, pay attention to the message. Don't pay attention to the naked man painted orange, pay attention to the message of school spirit. Don't pay attention to the fact that I had to record a telephone conversation, pay attention to the message: Do what's right, even if it's unpopular."
Then again, his popularity in Knoxville isn't much up for debate. On a recent morning, Pearl and Summitt addressed more than 50 construction workers on the site of the school's soon-to-be-completed $16 million basketball practice facility. The two coaches signed hard hats and expressed their gratitude before Pearl took the microphone.
"Do you think we're goin' to get it done in a month?" he asked. "Because, listen up, if it's not done in a month, I don't want to be out here chewin' no butt! Because I promise you right now, you think this is bad? I'm tellin' you right now, you do not want to hear from Coach Summitt!"
Everyone laughed. Then Summitt took her turn. "When you work together, great things can happen," she concluded. "Bruce and I understand teamwork. It only took 33 years and Bruce Pearl to get a practice facility, and that's all right. Let's hear it for Bruce!"
The construction workers roared. Summitt raised the microphone in the gesture of a toast, and Bruce Pearl flashed a wide grin, the kind he usually reserves for a Bud Select and a Krispy Kreme.
Luke Winn reports on Midnight Madness at Georgetown.
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