Fourteen years as an assistant coach at Stanford, Boston College and Iowa and 13 years as a head coach at Southern Indiana and Wisconsin-Milwaukee looked good on Bruce Pearl's resume.
But Tennessee? In the SEC? At first glance,
Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton's decision to even interview Pearl, a
Boston native, and give him serious consideration for the Vols' head basketball
coaching vacancy seemed like a mix of grits and clam chowder, barbecue and
Boston baked beans.
Along the way, Pearl butted heads with Memphis' John Calipari over a recruit who signed with
Then he drew the ire of LSU coach
John Brady when he made a "playful" gesture to the crowd as he subbed in Dane Bradshaw, a popular target for derision from opposing SEC fans. Following the
game Brady suggested Pearl should "show a little class."
Then as Tennessee students stood outside Thompson-Boling Arena for
the recent showdown with then-undefeated and second-ranked Florida, Pearl told the students, "This is your team.
I'm your coach. And we're going to kick Florida's ... ." It made for a lovely moment
on national sports highlight shows.
A professor of proctology studies,
he's not. But a pain in the backside? Depends on your perspective. He might not
be the most popular guy in the SEC right now, but Pearl is just about the most popular coach on the
campus these days – still well behind the legend, Pat Summitt, but ahead of Phil
Of course, it helps to beat
Florida 80-76 at home in front of 24,011, many
of whom only recently came to the startling realization that Tennessee offers men's
basketball as a varsity scholarship sport.
"It's great for us to be a part of
something like this," senior forward Andre Patterson said. "The first two years
I was here, this place was like a ghost town."
Actually, some of those fans
starting jumping on the bandwagon about three months ago when it became apparent
these Vols were going to run and gun and have some fun.
"They are one of the hottest teams
in America," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "I don't
think anybody expected them to be where they are right now."
Expect, of course, the Vols
"He's the kind of coach that makes
you believe you can win," sophomore guard Chris Lofton.
Pearl inherited a team that went 14-17 in
2004-05 after four mostly unsuccessful and innocuous seasons under former coach
"You have to taste some of the
bitterness of some defeats. That's what experience is," Pearl said. "I'm new;
they're not. These guys have been through it before, and you've got to give the
past some credit. It's there. I told ‘em they've won enough to know how to win,
they've lost enough to not want to taste it ever again."
Pearl also inherited a team willing to change
and hungry to win.
"They've lost enough to have their
confidence shaken," Pearl said, "but they've trained hard enough to
believe in a new season. Every year's a new season."
Pearl brought in a fresh approach that hasn't been seen in
the SEC since Nolan Richardson was winning national championships at Arkansas with his "40
Minutes of Hell" defensive pressure. In a conference where coaches seem to want
to control every possession and every little movement like a demolition's expert
working on a bomb, Pearl seems willing to unleash his players and
let them force the issue and run the floor.
Entering the weekend, Tennessee led the SEC in
steals (11.06 per game), turnover margin (plus-7.69 per game), turnovers forced
(20.2 per game), assist-turnover ratio (1.42 assists for every turnover) and
scoring offense (83.6 points per game).
That's not playground recklessness.
That's organized chaos with the speakers turned up to 11.
"I think we've just got heart,"
Pearl said. "We
don't back down from nobody. We're going to come at you for 40 minutes. We're
going to play hard. That's just how it is."
That was evident in the Florida game when the Vols forced 19 turnovers with nine
steals, recorded 17 assists to 13 turnovers and outrebounded Florida 40-35.
"This is a shot that will be heard
around the country," Pearl said after the game.
The only real negative came when
fans stormed the court as if the basketball program had never won a significant
game. Think Vanderbilt beating Tennessee in football last fall and then
multiply it by 10 and the crowd response was a bit embarrassing. The SEC even
had to fine Tennessee $5,000 for allowing it to happen.
Somewhere, Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld and Dale Ellis had to be
On one hand, the crowd support,
"was off the charts terrific," Pearl said. On the other hand, "We've got to
learn how to handle it with our crowd control and understand the responsibility
that we have to the safety and well being of our guests," Pearl said. "If this fine
draws attention to that fact, let's talk about. Let's congratulate the fans on
amazing atmosphere, but understand
we can't have that happen for the safety of the opponents.
"Again, I'm not at all unhappy with
our fans or upset with the students. I share their enthusiasm. But we did it
this one time. Let's not do it again."
The Vols also displayed an ability
to handle their newfound fortunes.
Pearl's team went back to work after the Florida game and pounded Mississippi State 88-65 and then beat South Carolina
In the same week, the Tennessee (14-3, 5-1 SEC)
entered The Associated Press poll at No. 19, giving the Vols' their second
ranking of the season. This time the Vols need to prove they belong for the long
If they do, that should take care
of all the unnecessary and premature NCAA Tournament talk surrounding the
"You've got to win at least half
your games in conference play, and we've won three," Pearl said. "After four
conference games, with 12 left, I just think it's too early. There are 12 teams
capable of beating us. It's way too soon."
At most programs, the loss of a
former walk-on playing limited minutes wouldn't bring much of a reaction. At
mid-season departure of sophomore guard Justin Jonus became big news.
Jonus, who received a scholarship
in 2005, was averaging 5.9 points and 20.9 minutes per game and started five
games earlier in the season, so it's not like losing Winston Kennedy a year
early to an NBA draft that never called Kennedy's name.
"I am disappointed in Justin's
decision and certainly the timing of this decision being that it is January
coach Mark Gottfried said. "I have expressed to Justin and his father that he
still could be a player that helps this team reach the NCAA Tournament. He has
told me his decision is based on the recent lack of playing time, specifically
the last four games."
Still, it didn't help when Jonus'
father, high school basketball coach Kirk Jonus, made most of the public
statements surrounding the decision and came off looking like the second coming
off Marv Marinovich, complaining about his son's lack of playing time and a lack
of communication from the coaches.
The real problem is that Alabama is now down to
just seven available scholarship players due to a combination of star forward
Chuck Davis' season-ending knee injury and some recruiting mistakes by the
For all the Internet flames and
talk-show heat directed at Jonus, Gottfried and his assistants must examine
their own decisions with some painful objectivity.
Obviously the Crimson Tide coaches
brought in some outstanding basketball players in recent years (Gerald Wallace,
Rod Grizzard, Maurice Williams, the aforementioned Winston, etc.), but the Tide
also signed guards Albert Weber, Glenn Miles, Ray George, forward Akini Adkins
and Shawn Taylor.
Miles left the team as a freshman
in 2004 and is now scoring 3.4 points per game for Redlands (Okla.) Community College. Weber left as a
freshman last season and is now scoring 22.6 points per game for Connors State
College. George never made it to Tuscaloosa because he couldn't graduate from
junior college on time.
Recruiting experts seemed to
indicate that all along. How could Alabama invent so much time and space on a kid
who probably wasn't going to make it in the first place?
Adkins is now playing at Florida
A&M, where he's scoring 5.2 points per game, and Taylor transferred to Chipola (Fla.) Junior College,
where he averages 3.4 points per game.
Alabama could always take the redshirt off
freshman forward Yamene Coleman, but why? He can't play guard, where the Crimson
Tide's depth is now down to starters Ron Steele and Brandon Hollinger, wings
Jean Felix and Alonzo Gee and walk-on guard Brandon Davis, who has played only
nine minutes this season.
Florida's two-game losing streak against Tennessee and South
Carolina may be the best thing that's happened to the Gators since
Nov. 17-18 when they beat Wake
Forest and Syracuse in back-to-back
Sure, those losses broke the Gators
school-record 17-game winning streak and knocked them out of the No. 2 spot in
the national polls, but in late January those things hardly matter. There's a
lot of basketball left to be played, and beating Auburn and Savannah State in consecutive games before the
two-game losing streak didn't do much to prepare
Florida for the stretch run.
Now the Gators can get back to
business after outscoring Vanderbilt 46-20 in the second half of an 81-58
victory on Saturday.
"We were able to push the ball up
the floor more and get back to the style that we want to play," Florida coach Billy
The Gators were back to the
unselfish, team-first style that propelled their hot start, just in time to play
at Ole Miss on Tuesday and play host to Kentucky on Sunday.
"With what we have been through,
all the adversity, this feels good," sophomore forward Joakim Noah said. "Now we
have to take what we've learned from this and take it on the road with
The next key is getting sophomore
wing Corey Brewer healthy and back on the court after he suffered a sprained
ankle in the first half of the Tennessee loss. Brewer struggled in the
game and then made the unselfish decision to approach Donovan on Saturday and
admit he couldn't be as effective as he needed to be as a starter that
After starting all of his previous
51 games at Florida, Brewer came off the bench against
Vandy and contributed three points and two steals in 17 minutes. Donovan said he
is day-to-day for the Ole Miss game, but don't count Brewer out.
"Corey begged me to play him the
second half of the Tennessee game," Donovan said. "I think after
watching himself on film against South
Carolina, seeing how he played, I think he probably
realized 75 percent was not good enough. And as a sophomore, as a guy who has
started every game since he's been here, I respect him for approaching me and
making that decision."
Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based
sports writer and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.