Can UT keep Pearl?

Back in December, a man at an electronics store was in a hurry to check out.

``I've got to go see the Texas game (against Tennessee),'' he said.

The clerk's response: ``Look at the back of the store.''

At the back of the store were 50-60 people huddled around a big screen TV watching the Tennessee at Texas game.

``I get the sense people are following us,'' said Mike Hamilton, Tennessee men's athletic director.

He senses correctly. Tennessee basketball hasn't been this popular since the Ernie and Bernie days in the mid 1970s. Average home attendance is up almost 5,000 per game. Students have camped out the night before to get prime seats. Talk shows had more calls about basketball than football recruiting in January.

All this basketball success has led many to congratulate Hamilton for making a great hire. Hamilton should get credit. It took courage to fire a popular coach like Buzz Peterson. Then, he hired a relative unknown in Pearl, who has been a gem.

Pearl was easy to hire. He went from making $300,000 at Wisconsin-Milwaukee – which offered almost double his salary to stay -- to $800,000.

Now comes the hard part: Keeping Pearl.

No doubt, Pearl's remarkable success with limited talent at Tennessee will have many programs courting him. Tennessee's second win at Rupp Arena since 1980 was another feather in Pearl's cap, improving the Vols to 17-3, 8-1 in the SEC. Fans have already speculated that Cincinnati, Indiana or Iowa might come calling.

Hamilton knows he'll have to reach for his wallet – a wallet that operated at a loss last year because of the Peterson buyout – and reward Pearl.

``We‘re in position for our guy to be at the top end of the league,'' Hamilton said before Tennessee's huge win at Kentucky. ``If someone wants to go higher, you have to react to that. But it's got to make sense.''

How high is Tennessee willing to go? It depends on the market value. It depends on what another school might offer.

``It's a balancing act,'' Hamilton said.

``Bruce will be compensated for what he's doing and we have the ability at Tennessee to compensate him very fairly to make sure he feels like he's wanted. I also think Bruce realizes this is a platform to win a national championship. And he can create a new legacy particularly as it relates to postseason success. He's a very loyal guy. But I will tell you, we're going to make sure we take care of Bruce financially.''

Hamilton didn't want to talk numbers, but you can bet the Vols are willing to go as high as $1.5 million to keep what is clearly the best basketball coach the program has had since Don DeVoe, perhaps Ray Mears.

Kentucky's Tubby Smith is the highest paid SEC coach at $2.2 million per year. Florida's Billy Donovan makes $1.8 million. Smith has won a national championship. Donovan has played for a national championship.

Pearl hasn't even coached Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament.

He will, of course. Barring a total collapse – does anyone see that coming? – Tennessee will be seeded between No. 2 and 5 in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. With an RPI of No. 3 in the nation and a No. 4 strength of schedule, UT won't fall far even if it splits its remaining SEC games.

Pearl's buyout if he leaves Tennessee is $500,000.

But I don't think he's going anywhere. He's beloved by UT fans. He's attracted huge crowds. He garnered a top 10 recruiting class even before recruits saw his exciting and successful style of play at Tennessee.

And he'll soon be a millionaire.

Pearl strikes me as being loyal. He stayed at Southern Indiana for nine years. He was at Wisconsin-Milwaukee for four years. Hamilton gave Pearl his first shot at the big time, a platform to win at a high level in a high profile conference.

Surely, Pearl is as grateful for the opportunity as Hamilton is for the success Pearl has achieved.

Hamilton was asked if UT would pay the men's basketball coach as much as the football coach – Phillip Fulmer makes $2.05 million per year.

``That's a bridge we have to cross when we get there,'' Hamilton said. ``If we continue to have basketball success, we'll see where it goes. You have to weigh it in conjunction with the revenue earned. I think we've got the right guy that we want to have here for a long time and we're going to work together to make sure that he's here.''

UT plans to build 26 luxury boxes for the 2007-08 season that will reduce capacity at Thompson-Boling Arena by about 3,000. UT has 17 to 18 commitments. That number might increase this week, considering the win over Kentucky.

UT is hoping to break ground on a new practice facility this fall. It will take 16-18 months to build.

Whatever Pearl has requested, he's received. And he's certainly held up his end of the bargain. If he's not the national coach of the year, I don't know who is.

There's no need to even take a vote for SEC Coach of the Year.

``We win in everything we compete in,'' said a proud Hamilton. ``We played for the championship in 19 of 20 (men's and women's) sports (last season). We were in the top 25 in 18 of 20 sports. Why not basketball?''

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