The Pearl Paradox

On a perfect Planet Orange (aka Big Orange Country, Vol Nation, Rocky Top Tennessee), Bruce Pearl will be head coach deep into the 2020s and unfurl a few national title banners from the rafters of what will become known as Summitt-Pearl Arena.

Sure it might be more perfect to rival John Wooden's run as the Wizard of Westwood, but too much success can be a bad thing. (See the Vols' gridiron decline since the perfect 1998 campaign.)

The mere fact we can mention Tennessee men's basketball in the say sentence as national title without eliciting a cacophony of derision speaks Volumes about the impact Pearl has had in two short seasons on The Hill. It clearly contrasts to the lean years that featured bad basketball and athletic underachievers.

Pearl has managed to lift Tennessee fans from the malaise and uninspired play that were part and parcel of the Buzz Peterson experiment. And were present to some degree in every other assortment of failed experiment that ensued the early DeVoe era and closely corresponded to the advent of the shot clock and three-point shot. (Two rules experiments that DeVoe once equated to playing donkey basketball.) Need we say more about how his coaching career evolved?

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, no former Tennessee head basketball coach is currently a head coach at any level, since Peterson bailed on the Coastal Carolina gig for a middle management job with the Charlotte Hornets, where he'll be reunited with former teammate and longtime friend Michael Jordan. Given M.J.'s dubious track record as GM and Peterson's performance at UT the ingredients for disaster are in place. Add Jerry Green to the mix and watch the mushroom cloud rise over Charlotte.

Okay so that may be a little harsh, but it does help underscore just how disheartening it was during Tennessee's 20 seasons of wandering through the hardwood wilderness under the guidance of Wade Houston, Kevin O'Neil, Green, Peterson and DeVoe's decline. Even the regular season success under Green, with players largely signed and recruited by O'Neil, were offset by post season collapses of epic proportions.

Again it points out just how much Pearl has managed to accomplish at UT through his energy, enthusiasm and basketball ingenuity. It explains why he is held in such high esteem by Big Orange supporters and why he is a shining light on The Hill.

That's why the idea of losing Pearl to another college puts many UT fans into an emotional tailspin. They know how problematical it is to hire a good fit and how easy it would be to slip back into the swamp of mediocrity that is distinguished by small crowds, empty seats and wholesale apathy.

This year Iowa wanted to interview Pearl for the job Steve Alford vacated. He was a longtime assistant for the Hawkeyes under Tom Davis, and the fact he turned down a job in the Big Ten territory with which he was so familiar was most encouraging to UT fans.

At first look Iowa would seem to be a very attractive job to Pearl and if he didn't even interview for that opening why would he leave a program on the verge of big things for a rebuilding job at another school?

The answer is he probably wouldn't. However if the Vols continue their climb to elite status in college basketball he'll become increasingly attractive to the NBA and its deep pockets. Consider that Billy Donovan, who recently signed a multimillion dollar deal with the Orlando Magic before changing his mind and returning to Florida is the most desirable coaching commodity to the NBA after leading Florida to consecutive national titles.

However in his first two seasons at a program that had not even made the NCAA tournament the four previous seasons before his arrival, Pearl not only took the Vols to the Big Dance with high seeds both years, he also beat Donovan in 3 to 1 in head-to-head match ups.

Look at it this way: If the NBA would hire former UT head coach Kevin O'Neil and his assistant Lawrence Franks to head franchises, it stands to reason some NBA team would be very interested in hiring a proven winner like Pearl.

And the franchise most in need of his coaching services just so happens to be the most storied in pro basketball — the Boston Celtics. Since Pearl went to school at Boston College and is a fan of the professional teams in Beantown, that would appear to be a good fit. He recently returned to Boston and threw out the first ball at a Red Sox's game.

Add to that the fact Danny Ainge is director of operations for the Celtics and is a frequent visitor to Knoxville for his nephew Eric Ainge's football games, and it's clear the conduit is in place to easily facilitate such an arrangement. At the very least Ainge is very familiar with Pearl and the remarkable job he has managed at one of the most downtrodden basketball programs in the SEC. Who better to breath life into the faltering Celtics?

Of course there's a lot of conjecture in reaching this conclusion, but none of it is unreasonable. At the same time there are factors mitigating against such a potential as well. To begin with we don't know if Pearl would be interested in coaching any NBA team.

For sure, it's an entirely different job and requires a different skill set to be successful. Pearl's trap and press system wouldn't translate well to an 82-game schedule and he wouldn't be able to handpick his players like he can now. It's also much more difficult to sell pro players on the idea of becoming role players. Rick Pitino ran into some of the same problems with the New York Knicks.

Playing three times the number of games than in college means less preparation time and a lot more travel. It could become a tremendous drain on a coach with Pearl's high energy coaching style. You have to leverage that into the equation when considering the allure of Celtic green.

It's not likely to impose an immediate threat to UT's basketball program, but Big Orange fans should probably start hoping Boston has a great season next year.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories