There was Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, stalking the sideline last Saturday night in orange suspenders and an orange tie as his Volunteers took on No. 2 Florida, the last undefeated team in the nation. The crowd of 24,011, the largest for a men's basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena since 1991, included Tennessee's athletic department royalty. Looking on was legendary women's coach Pat Summitt, who earlier in the week had given Pearl the tie he was wearing, along with a note that said, "I'm glad you're here." Behind the Vols' bench was football coach Phil Fulmer, who is no stranger to big-stage battles with the Gators. "It was like having a big brother back there," Pearl says of Fulmer. "He looked at me a couple of times and with his eyes just said, Hang in there, you're doing fine."
Pearl did indeed hang in there, and his team upset Florida 80--76 to improve to 12--3 overall and tie the Gators for first place in the SEC East at 3--1. As a raucous student section some 5,000 strong mobbed the court, it seemed that Tennessee's reeling men's hoops program, which had shuffled through four coaches since 1989, was finally coming to life, with Pearl gleefully administering the smelling salts.
The Volunteers, who struggled to a 14--17 record under Buzz Peterson last season, are thriving with an unheralded cast of little guys: The starting lineup against the Gators had just one player taller than 6'5". (Dane Bradshaw, a converted guard, gave up seven inches to the man he had to defend, 6'11" center Joakim Noah.) But the Vols neutralized Florida's height with Pearl's trademark 1-2-1-1 press, forcing 19 turnovers, and got a game-high 29 points from 6'2" guard Chris Lofton. "We thought if we could get it to be a sloppy game, with our full-court pressure defense, it could be to our advantage," Pearl says.
Says Tom Davis, the Drake coach and Pearl's longtime mentor, "He's an aggressive guy, and that's the style that he coaches. He's been that way since I first knew him as an 18-year-old at Boston College."
That was in 1978, when Davis was the coach at BC and Pearl, a Massachusetts native, tried to walk on to the team. Though Pearl didn't make it as a player, Davis kept him on as a student assistant. Pearl had an evangelical style even then, promoting the team to the student body, hosting recruits and even serving a one-game stint as the Eagles' mascot.
After 14 years as Davis's assistant at BC, Stanford and Iowa, Pearl was ready to be a head coach, but a whistle-blowing incident while he was at Iowa apparently held him back. (In 1989 Pearl secretly taped a conversation in which forward Deon Thomas suggested he had received $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to attend Illinois. Pearl turned the tape over to the NCAA, which found the Illini not guilty of any wrongdoing in the recruitment of Thomas.)
Pearl ended up at Division II Southern Indiana in 1992, and in '95 he led the Eagles to a national title. He then moved on to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which he took to the NCAA tournament twice in four years, reaching the Sweet 16 last March. And the Vols appear headed for their first trip to the Big Dance since 2001.
Though he's now in charge of a major-conference program, Pearl has not changed his in-your-face style. He had the seats removed from the Rocky Top Rowdies' section to amp up the students' energy. And in just his second conference road game, an 88--74 loss at LSU, he riled Tigers fans by raising Bradshaw's hand like a prizefighter's during a late-game substitution, causing LSU coach John Brady to say, "Tell their coach to show some class."
But Pearl is unapologetic about making waves. "If you're the favorite coach of opposing fans, chances are you haven't beaten them very often," he says. "Someday wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if I was the least popular coach in the SEC?"
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DARREN CARROLL (PEARL)
VOL-ATILE While Pearl riles foes on the bench, Lofton (5) is his team's top scorer.
ELIZABETH OLIVIER/UTSPORTS.COM (LOFTON)
[See caption above.]