Pearl likes not being liked

A year ago, LSU coach John Brady took a shot at Bruce Pearl, saying Tennessee's coach needed to show some class and act like he's been in a big-time conference before. Recently, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings called Pearl an ``idiot (expletive)'' after Pearl wore body paint in support of a Lady Vols basketball game.

Pearl, no doubt, is a lightning rod.

He attracts attention. He attracts criticism.

And you can bet, despite the negative remarks, he's enjoying every second.

Why? Because it means he's getting under someone's skin. It means his program is a threat. It means he's winning.

``I've never been the most popular coach in any league I've been in,'' Pearl said.

And he wants it to stay that way.

Asked why he's not always well liked by his coaching colleagues, Pearl says: ``I can't really say. I'd hope it's because of my record.''

Pearl pointed out that in his 14 years as a head coach, he has won or finished within two games of first place all 14 years.

``That doesn't make you the most popular guy in the conference,'' Pearl said. ``The guys who are popular are the guys you can beat.

``I want to be popular with our fans. But if we don't start winning some games, I'm going to all the sudden start to become more popular in the conference, and I'm not interested in that.''

No, Pearl would rather be disliked by other league coaches. He'd rather win games. He'd rather be a threat.

Think about it. When Wade Houston was Tennessee's coach, he was popular in the SEC. Kentucky's Rick Pitino said it was unfair that the Vols fired Houston and suggested he'd love to have Houston on his staff.

Guess what? Pitino never hired Houston.

A few years ago, Tennessee had another coach who wasn't well liked in the SEC. Ray Mears was a promoter who coined the phrase Big Orange Country and who used unicycles and orange blazers to bring attention to his program.

Tennessee hasn't had a promoter like Mears until Pearl.

And Tennessee hasn't had a winner like Mears, unless it becomes Pearl.

It's too early to crown Pearl as UT's best coach since Mears. Remember, Don DeVoe averaged over 20 wins in his first seven seasons, captured the 1979 SEC Tournament and made five straight NCAA Tournaments.

But Pearl is on his way to building an impressive resume at Tennessee. Last year, he won the SEC East Division over eventual champion Florida and garnered a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This season, with three freshmen playing prominent roles, the Vols have defeated Texas, Memphis and Oklahoma State in exciting style and lost at the buzzer to Ohio State.

A win against talented but underachieving LSU on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena would push UT's record to 16-8, 4-5 in the SEC. By Pearls' count, the Vols could get in the NCAA Tournament with a 7-9 SEC record.

Winning 20 games and going 8-8 in the conference could guarantee a bid – perhaps as high as a No. 8 seed.

Pearl was asked specifically about Brady and Stallings making critical off-the-cuff remarks about him.

``Tennessee basketball is relevant now,'' Pearl said. ``It's a wonderful thing. I appreciate the support and I appreciate the fact it matters. Tennessee matters again. It's mattered before.

``We're in the race to make the NCAA Tournament. That hasn't always been the case in the recent past. It was last year and it is again this year, even with this young basketball team.

``You can see the rest of the SEC has taken notice. We've made progress in the stands (attendance). We've made progress on the court. We've made progress in the RPI and strength of schedule and with facility upgrades.''

How can you measure the progress?

By negative comments made about Pearl by opposing SEC coaches.

When that stops, Pearl will worry. It would mean Tennessee basketball won't matter any more.

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