His fans — and there are many — call him a marketing mastermind and a promotional genius. His critics — and there are many — call him a snake-oil salesman, a liar and a shameless carnival barker.
Whatever you call him, Bruce Pearl brings his traveling sideshow to Knoxville Saturday at noon for what might be the most eagerly anticipated game in the history of Tennessee basketball. In case you’ve forgotten, he led the Vols to unprecedented heights from 2005 to 2011 only to be fired for lying to NCAA investigators about a minor recruiting violation. Now in his first year directing the Auburn Tigers following a three-year NCAA show-cause, he remains the most beloved/most loathed figure in Big Orange hoops history, depending on who you ask.
This larger-than-life persona means the spotlight will focus on Pearl for much of Saturday afternoon. That’s OK with Tennessee’s current head coach.
“I think it will be a great atmosphere, obviously,” Donnie Tyndall said this week. “Everything that Coach Pearl did here — from winning games to playing for championships to going to the Elite Eight — needs to be recognized. In fact, we sell a lot of those things in our recruiting. I think people will be excited to see him. I’m hopeful they’re cheering for us. I’m pretty sure that will be the case.”
Given the fanatical nature of some Pearl supporters, that may not be the case for everyone. Some followers never fully embraced Cuonzo Martin, the man who succeeded Pearl and preceded Tyndall. This polarized the fan base at times.
“There’s Coach Martin fans, and there should be; there’s Coach Pearl fans, and there should be,” Tyndall said. “At the end of the day, there’s Tennessee fans, and I think they’re pulling for our team. They’re pulling for me as the coach, and that’s all I wanted to do when I took over – unite everybody, get us on the same page and move forward.”
Because Pearl directed Tennessee basketball’s golden era, he is sure to get the warmest welcome a visiting coach ever received at Thompson-Boling Arena. That’s OK with Tyndall, too.
“I don’t mean this egotistically at all but if you went to Morehead, Kentucky or Hattiesburg, Mississippi those fans would say the same things about me they say about Coach Pearl here,” Tyndall said. “When you win, when you treat people the right way in the community, you give of yourself and your team gives back, people gravitate toward you. They love that…. Hopefully, someday my staff and I will be thought of the way he is.”
Noting that he has a “good relationship” with Pearl, Tyndall added: “He’s a guy I’ve always respected. Obviously, he’s one of the better coaches in college basketball. He called me when I got the job and congratulated me…. He’s been good, very supportive.”
Still, Tyndall’s job was made tougher by Pearl, who raised the bar considerably during his six-year stint at Tennessee. Assuming a program that went 61-59 with zero NCAA bids under Buzz Peterson, he guided the Vols to The Dance six consecutive seasons. He directed the 2007-08 Vols to a program-record 31 wins and a brief stint atop the national rankings. He led the 2009-10 Vols to an unprecedented Elite-Eight appearance. He beat Florida’s Billy Donovan like a red-headed step-child and finished ahead of Kentucky in the SEC standings four times in six years.
Still, the greatest thing Bruce Pearl did for Tennessee basketball was make it fun again. Reviving a program that was on life support when he arrived, he routinely packed Thompson-Boling Arena. His manic sideline antics whipped Tennessee’s players and fans into a frenzy while simultaneously distracting opponents and unnerving officials.
Home games during the Pearl era were more than an event; they were an experience. He even stole the spotlight in road games on several occasions. Exhibit A was a 2006 trip to Baton Rouge.
After taunting Vol Dane Bradshaw all game, LSU fans chanted for him to be returned to the lineup with about a minute left. Clearly grandstanding, Pearl guided Bradshaw toward the scorer’s table, then raised the player’s hand to make sure fans saw him checking into the game. LSU’s crowd was entertained but LSU’s coach was enraged. After the game John Brady snarled that Pearl needed to “show a little class.”
Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings is another rival coach who finds Pearl’s persona more annoying than amusing. After Pearl showed up for a 2007 Lady Vol home game with his bare chest painted orange, Stallings referred to the Vol coach as an “idiot.” Stallings used the same term last winter to characterize 37,000 Big Orange fans who signed an on-line petition to bring back Pearl.
Pearl’s antics remind veteran Vol watchers of the late Ray Mears, another Tennessee coach who seemed to relish angering foes as much as beating them.
“I really don’t care to go down in the record books as an SOB,” Mears once said, “but neither am I going to change my habits just because some people don’t approve.”
Those words pretty much summarize Pearl’s philosophy, as well.
What makes Saturday’s Tennessee-Auburn game all the more intriguing is the fact the two head coaches are similar in approach. As Vol director of basketball operations Justin Phelps recently noted, “There’s a lot of Bruce Pearl in Donnie Tyndall.”
Like Pearl, Tyndall is an extrovert who never declines an opportunity to promote his program. Like Pearl, Tyndall will push the envelope to attract attention. While coaching Southern Miss in 2013, he and his team performed in a “Harlem Shuffle” video that has attracted nearly 300,000 views on You-Tube.
Tyndall resembles Pearl in coaching style, as well – utilizing full-court pressure to create chaos on the court and fatigue in opponents’ legs. Even their sideline demeanors mesh. Both are fiery and ultra-intense.
Basically, Tyndall is a toned-down version of Pearl – not quite as glib, not quite as boisterous, not quite as animated, not quite as outrageous. As a result, most of the fans who embraced Pearl now find themselves embracing Tyndall. If Pearl’s popularity rating at Tennessee was a 10, Tyndall’s is a solid 8. Like Pearl, he is winning games he wasn’t supposed to win and putting a team on the floor whose blue-collar work ethic matches that of the fan base.
Here’s the rub, though: Many fans still want the original Pearl, not the toned-down version known as Donnie Tyndall. These fans will cheer harder when the visiting coach is introduced Saturday than when the home coach is introduced. These fans will be pulling for the original Pearl to win the game, believing this will convince UT’s administration that it never should have fired him in the first place.
All of this makes Saturday’s showdown The Game of the Year for Tyndall. Winning will silence some of the “Bring Back Bruce” rhetoric. Conversely, losing the game will bolster the Pearl mystique. Clearly, the stakes are high.
“With all he accomplished, I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t get a great ovation,” Tyndall said. “He certainly deserves one in my humble opinion. When I went back to Morehead (as an opposing coach) it was really cool that they gave me a great ovation. We won the game by 36, so I hope they (Tigers) don’t come in here and win by 36. That won’t be good.”
GAME NOTES: Tennessee brings a 12-7 overall record and a 4-3 SEC mark into the game. Auburn is 10-10 and 2-5…. The Vols have won seven consecutive games in the series, and the Tigers are 0-6 this season on the road…. Auburn and Tennessee have five common foes. The Vols beat Texas Southern 70-58 at home, Auburn prevailed 61-60 at home. The Vols beat Missouri 59-51 on the road, the Tigers prevailed 85-79 at home. Tennessee beat South Carolina 66-62 on the road, Auburn prevailed 71-68 at home. Tennessee lost to Alabama 38-56 at home, Auburn lost 55-57 on the road. The Vols lost to Texas A&M 61-67 at home, Auburn lost 61-71 at home…. Tennessee has a 1-2 record against former UT coaches. The Vols were 1-0 against Don DeVoe when he was at Florida but 0-2 against Kevin O’Neill at Southern Cal…. In addition to Bruce Pearl, Saturday’s game will be a homecoming for two other members of the Auburn staff. Tony Jones was the associate head coach at UT under Pearl. Steven Pearl, Bruce’s son, appeared in 101 games at Tennessee with one start…. Saturday’s tipoff is set for noon with TV coverage provided by ESPN2.