Hamilton gets his man

In the search for a new basketball coach, Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton hoped to bring just one man in for a campus interview. By the end of last Friday's three-hour chat with Bruce Pearl at the Chicago Hilton, Hamilton felt he'd found his man and offered the job.

Pearl, fresh from a Sweet 16 loss to top-ranked Illinois the night before, ultimately decided to leave tiny Wisconsin-Milwaukee to accept the reins at Tennessee. He has signed a five-year deal worth $800,000 per year.

Pearl brings a recommendation of former Vol All-American Ernie Grunfeld, currently the president of basketball operations for the NBA's Washington Wizards.

''When I went in and interviewed, I could tell from the interview process I was their choice,'' Pearl said shortly after being introduced as Buzz Peterson's successor.

The way the new coach sees it, his migration to Tennessee must've been fated.

''Mike had my name, the search company had my name, Ernie brought it up,'' he said. ''Mike knew some people like Steve Newton (Pearl's athletics director at Southern Indiana). Then we get in the (NCAA) Tournament and happen to get matched up against (SEC rival) Alabama.

''I believe things happen for a reason. My guess is that's what jumped out at Mike: 'I got this feeling, and this feeling just keeps getting reinforced everytime we do something.' ''

About 10 days ago, shortly before leaving on an overseas trip, Grunfeld gave Pearl a bit of parting advice.

''Right before he left, Ernie said, 'By the way, if you can beat Alabama, it might help your chances to get the job,' '' Pearl said.

Pearl beat Bama in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament, then guided Wisconsin-Milwaukee to a second-round upset of Boston College. Hamilton couldn't initiate contact while the Panthers were still playing, but Pearl got a few feelers from the Coach Search firm. He also spoke with Grunfeld.

''I had talked to Ernie and expressed my interest, so I think the search firm knew I was interested,'' Pearl said.

Hamilton was in Chicago to talk with another candidate for the UT vacancy when UWM won its way to the regional there. So, once Pearl's team was eliminated, the Vol athletics director moved swiftly to set up an interview.

''We had a three-hour meeting at the Chicago Hilton,'' Pearl recalled. ''Mike Hamilton asked a lot of questions and I obviously gave the right answers.''

Despite Tennessee's recent history of basketball futility, the new head man is brimming with optimism.

''They're committed to trying to win here,'' Pearl said. ''I saw the opportunity, and this was just too good to pass up.''

Despite the whirlwind courtship, the new coach is happy with the way it progressed.

''You have to give Mike Hamilton credit,'' Pearl said. ''He wanted these young men coming back to school and wanted the coach to be here if he could find any way for it to happen. It pushed the process along a little bit for me but I needed it because I need to get recruiting and I need to get coaching.

''We need to get to work.''

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