Oddly enough, they have met only once previously, Dec. 7, 2001. Pearl was coaching just his seventh game as head man at Wisconsin-Milwaukee when his Panthers invaded Louisville's Freedom Hall to face Pitino's Cardinals in the Jim Thorpe Classic.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee bolted to a 13-8 lead in the opening minutes that evening only to watch Louisville hit seven consecutive field-goal tries in a 17-0 explosion that turned the five-point deficit into a 25-13 margin. The Cardinals led 43-31 at the break and used a 10-2 spurt to go up by 20 points (53-33) early in the second half. The Panthers never got closer than 11 thereafter, ultimately losing 90-75.
The loss dropped Wisconsin-Milwaukee to 3-4 on its way to a 16-13 season, which remains to this day the worst record of Pearl's coaching career.
"I remember getting it handed to us by Louisville," the Vol coach recalled this week. "I've gone up against Coach Pitino, and it was a complete mismatch the last time."
Actually, calling the game a mismatch is a bit harsh. Pearl's Panthers shot a respectable 46.7 percent from the field and 40 percent (8 of 20) from 3-point range. They broke even on the backboards but committed 17 turnovers and sank just 11 of 23 foul shots.
"He outcoached me the last time; he always outdresses me," Pearl said of Pitino, known for his custom-tailored Armani suits. "He outdresses anybody. I'm trying to learn. I'm good. He's the best."
Although they have met on the court just once previously heading into tonight's 9:57 tipoff at Charlotte's Bobcat Arena, the two coaches go way back. Pearl was a first-year student-assistant at Boston College in 1978 and Pitino was a 25-year-old rookie head coach across town at Boston University.
"I grew up admiring him, literally," Pearl recalled.
No wonder. Pitino went 91-51 at Boston U, establishing himself as the Boy Wonder of the coaching ranks. After a stint as an assistant with the NBA's New York Knicks, he returned to college ball and promptly guided Providence to the 1987 Final Four in his second year there.
After another stint with the Knicks – this time as head coach – Pitino returned to the college ranks at Kentucky, leading the Wildcats to an amazing eight-year record of 219-50. He reached three Final Fours in his last five years there, claiming a national title in '96. He also won two SEC regular-season championships and went 17-1 in SEC Tournament play.
After yet another NBA stint – this time with the Boston Celtics – Pitino returned to the college game as head man at Louisville, where he has compiled a 168-66 record to date.
Pitino recently made a splash by showing up in a white suit for Louisville's Valentines' Day game against Georgetown. When the Cardinals played poorly and went to the break down 31-23, he came out for the second half in a conservative dark suit and guided his team to a come-from-behind 59-51 victory. Rather than admit to being superstitious, Pitino explained the wardrobe change by noting that he was sweating profusely and didn't want his "filters" (underwear) to show through.
For the record, Pearl is not expecting to see the white suit when the third-seeded Cardinals and the second-seeded Vols meet this evening in the East Regional semifinals.
"If they had played better that Valentine's Day we might see it again," Tennessee's coach quipped.
Pitino may not be wearing white for this game but he's sure to be wearing his emotions on his sleeve. It's his personality. It's Pearl's personality, as well.
"We're both intense," the Vol coach said. "We're both passionate. We both teach the same basketball, except he teaches it better... I'm not going to try and be calm, cool and collected. That's just not who I am.
"If people think it's showmanship, that's fine. People that know me know that's how I am. And I would imagine that's how Coach Pitino is, as well."