UT-Vandy a special rivalry

Former Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears made the Vanderbilt game special by taking a leisurely pre-game walk past the VU student section, pausing only to duck the occasional orange hurled at his head.

Current Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl made the Vanderbilt special by electing to wear the orange blazer Mears made famous whenever the Vols and Commodores collide. Pearl makes this fashion statement against just one other opponent, Kentucky.

That, in a nutshell, tells you how big the rivalry is between the Volunteers and the cross-state Commodores, who collide at 3 today in Thompson-Boling Arena. Always has been ... always will be.

"It's obviously a great rivalry," Pearl said this week. "We're going to be celebrating our 100 years of Tennessee basketball ... going to be honoring the 20-member All-Century Team. I'm really glad it's going to be against Vanderbilt because it's such a great program and such a great rival."

The rivalry was ultra-intense during the Mears era because the flamboyant UT coach loved stirring up VU coach Roy Skinner and the Vandy students. The flames flickered a bit when Mears exited center stage but the embers have been rekindled since the arrival of the equally flamboyant Pearl.

"I would imagine because of Bruce's personality and flamboyance there are a few Vanderbilt fans that like to dislike him more than maybe they have some other coaches perhaps," Vandy head man Kevin Stallings said. "But I don't think it has changed the nature of the rivalry. The rivalry's intense, no matter who's coaching the game – me or him or the people before us."

Perhaps. But Pearl, like Mears before him, exhibits a special knack for working opponents into a lather.

"I think people probably tend to dislike people that win a lot, and he's certainly won a lot," Stallings said. "It's probably not just exclusive to our people because he's winning too much for a lot of people's taste ... including mine."

Like Stallings, Pearl downplays the notion that he has elevated the UT-VU rivalry beyond its normal level of intensity.

"I don't know what the rivalry was like before I got here," he said. "Historically, Coach Mears always talked about Vanderbilt being a great rivalry. You hear the great stories about him at that gymnasium and the way he was treated."

The Vol coach added that he views the Commodores as a heated rival "out of respect for Vanderbilt's program, respect for their tradition.... (Vanderbilt is) in the SEC East and you play them twice every year. It's in-state and our fans live next-door to their fans, I don't know how it could be any more of a rivalry with me than it's always been."

Tennessee brings a 15-8 record (6-3 SEC) into today's game. Vandy is 15-8 (4-5) and riding a three-game winning streak. Raycom is providing TV coverage.

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