As Bruce Pearl begins his new life at Auburn, it might be fun to look back at my profile of him from 2005, when he first started as coach at the University of Tennessee. It ran in MetroPulse on Nov. 10, 2005.
Is this new coach poised to lead the Vols out of the wilderness?
by Brooks Clark
In the beginning (1987), there was a void.
And that void was Thompson-Boling Arena. And that void held 25,535 seats. And that was good, because it was bigger than Rupp Arena in the land of basketball to the north.
But the people of the land of Orange were jealous, because they thought their leader, Don Devoe, could not fill the void.
So the call went out into the land of the north for a great prophet—but the best they could do was Wade Houston, an assistant at Louisville, who at least had a son who was a mighty warrior who could smite a foe every now and then.
But Wade was too smooth a man, and he had many losses.
So he begat Kevin O’Neill, who (though balding) was too hairy a man, whose Yankee mouth spake many an epithet, who gave lip to John Ward (gasp!), and whose boring offense caused the angels and everyone else to fall asleep.
So Kevin O’Neill begat Jerry Green.
Jerry Green four times took the people of Orange to the Land of Milk and Honey (the NCAA tournament). But in a Sweet 16 game against the land of basketball to the East, the Vols blew a 10-point lead with five minutes remaining, and the people said it was not good. And Jerry was surly to the local media and boosters. And the people were sore annoyed.
So Jerry begat Buzz, who had been suckled in the land of basketball to the East, where he had been best friends with Michael Jordan, the mightiest warrior of them all. And Buzz was a great guy. But his teams were like lost sheep.
And so the call went out again for a prophet to lead the people of the Orange out of the wilderness, to fill the void of 25,535 seats the way Pat Summitt can, to recruit the top players the way Kentucky and North Carolina do.
The tale of Tennessee basketball has become a Biblical epic, with each chapter telling a different tale of human failing and foible—and at its root a massive inferiority complex to the Kentucky and North Carolina programs on our northern and eastern flanks.
“Yeah, maybe the Vols should have simply counted their blessings back when they had Don DeVoe,” says Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff.
Now, after these 16 years of wandering, Tennessee basketball has chosen another prophet to lead it out of the wilderness.
This is a prophet who went to a Jesuit college to convert the Catholic masses to the idea that Jews are cool, too.
On blown-out knees, in college he worked every angle of learning the game at the highest levels—selling radio ads, even dressing up in the Eagle mascot outfit when the regular mascot was sick.
As an assistant at Iowa, this prophet took a stand against sleazy recruiting by turning in a corrupt Illinois program to the NCAA.
In the eyes of many, he was sent into the wilderness for his act of coaching suicide, but after nine years and a Division II national title as head coach at Southern Indiana and four at the commuter school Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he was on the short list of top young coaches in the country.
Then his name was underlined on that short list when his spunky, aggressive Wisco-Waukeeans upset Alabama in the NCAA tournament and beat his alma mater, Boston College, before losing to top-seeded Illinois in the Sweet 16.
Throw It Up Before You Throw It Away
In the coming weeks UT fans will truly get to meet Bruce Pearl and see whether he can coach the Vols to run a relentless fast break and play full-court defense the way his team did last March.
“The style he coaches is a polar opposite of O’Neill ball,” says Wolff. “In fact, this figures to be the most entertaining brand of ball to hit town since the days of Ray Mears.” Pearl is going to run and gun, and it’s going to start right now. His system is about making plays and making a commitment to the up-tempo game.
“You throw it up before you throw it away,” Pearl says, quoting a Lou Holtz laugh line. Pearl admits that it takes time to learn to play the up-tempo game. “It will look undisciplined at times, but our opponent is also going to go faster. The only way to learn to play that game is to play that game. At Milwaukee, we really got it in our fourth year.”
Last spring, right after Pearl was hired, sophomore guard Chris Lofton, who made 93 three-pointers as a freshman, gave some thought to switching schools. But Lofton looked at the films of Pearl’s teams and decided that the style of play was to his liking. “Throw it up before you throw it away” sounds just fine to a 46.5-percent three-point shooter. “We’re going to get him open,” says Pearl, “and when he gets open, he’s going to make shots.”
That’s pretty much how it went in an 86-78 pre-season exhibition game victory last week over Southern Indiana, as the Vols forced 27 turnovers and guard C.J. Watson and Lofton scored 27 and 26 points, respectively.
Pearl says the Vols will attack the ball from one end of the floor to the other. Pearl’s favorite press is a 1-2-1-1, with one man on the ball, the next two ready to trap the first pass.
“It’s controlled chaos,” says Pearl. “It’s taking on our opponents to open up the court.”
The average basketball fan might ask “Why would you play that way when your numbers are down and your talent is, well, rebuilding?
“An up-tempo style increases the number of possessions in a game,” says SI’s Wolff, “which in turn gives superior talent a chance to win out. That may have worked at Wisco-Waukee; my question is whether to play that style in the SEC, when you have second-division talent, is a sign of a death wish. BP has to be hoping that the style will deliver better talent than anyone at Tennessee has been used to.”
I Can Do It
Pearl grew up in the suburb of Sharon, Mass., next door to Foxboro. He even played a football game on the old AstroTurf of what was then Schaeffer Stadium, in the days when the turf was just a carpet laid on top of asphalt. “It’s amazing how hard it was,” recalls Bruce.
His parents, Bernie and Barbara, had lived across the street from each other in hardscrabble Dorchester-Mattapan, Mass., from the time Barbara was three years old.
“Bruce comes from a very, very close-knit family,” says Barbara. Her parents, Jean and Hyman Rosenberg, were the children of Russian immigrants. Hyman was an accountant for the state of Massachusetts. Bernie’s mother had immigrated from Russia. His father, Jack Pearlmutter, a plumber, had immigrated from Austria in the 1920s.
Bernie shortened the name after working in a busy Robert Hall retail clothing store, where—rather than shout out “Bernie Pearlmutter” every time they called for him, they shortened it to “Pearl.” Bernie and Barbara changed it legally before Bruce was born and moved to Sharon when Bruce was three.
Bernie was a housewares and hardware manufacturer’s rep. “We represented many factories,” says Bernie. “If you had an order, we could fill it.”
Bernie and Barbara brought up Bruce and his sister, Lauren, as reform Jews, following the modern movement that embraces innovations while preserving Jewish traditions.
Now retired in Boynton Beach, Fla., Bernie and Barbara recently spent several post-hurricane weeks in Knoxville. Lauren, an occupational therapist in Boca Raton, was still waiting for electric power as the month of November began.
Young Bruce played football, basketball and tennis. Then, his freshman year in high school he tore up the cartilage on both sides of his knees playing quarterback in Pop Warner football.
“My whole identity was athletics,” he says. “While I was still a good athlete, I was never the same.”
His doctor was Arthur Pappas, the orthopedic surgeon for the Red Sox. “When Bruce knew he was done with sports, he wasn’t doing well healing emotionally,” recalls Bernie. “Dr. Pappas took Bruce down to a ward where patients had lost limbs and told him, ‘You’ve lost the ability to play sports. These people have lost their ability to do much more than that.’”
“Things happen for a reason,” says Pearl. “I was the best athlete in town, but I don’t know that I was the best person. It changed my life. I ran for student government and was senior class president. I met different kids than I was running around with in athletics. It made me kinder.”
When he couldn’t play basketball his sophomore year in high school, Pearl was in a play, “a British comedy,” he recalls, “I was the straight man.”
“He was the butler,” recalls Barbara. “It opened with him fixing a light bulb and saying, ‘I can do it.’”
“Since I couldn’t play, I decided to coach.” He coached fifth-grade baseball, football and basketball teams.
If Pearl needed preparation for the frustrations of UT basketball, he got plenty as a Red Sox fan. He shared the regional brain aneurysm of watching a hobbled Bill Buckner bend over and miss the ground ball that could have won the 1986 World Series against the ill-mannered Mets but instead extended the curse of the Bambino another 18 years.
“And don’t forget Bucky Dent” he’s quick to add. “A 315-foot line drive, that’s what it was.” In 1978, in an end-of-regular-season playoff game, Dent, the Yankees’ shortstop, hit a ninth-inning homer that nestled into the net just atop the Big Green Monster in Fenway Park. Even after the catharsis of last year’s World Series win, Red Sox fans still feel the pain of these things.
After high school, Pearl chose Jesuit Boston College, because it had a big-time sports program as well as big-time academics—“not quite Ivy League, but just a hair below.”
“He could have gone to Boston College and support himself,” says Bernie, “or he could have gone to UMass, and we’d buy him a car. He chose to support himself. He had the maturity for it.”
“Since most of the population was non-Jewish,” says Pearl, “I went there to BC to convert the masses—to make them see that Jewish people could be cool, too.”
The result: “They thought I was Italian,” he says.
“I wore a Chai [a small ornament made up of the two Hebrew letters that spell the word for “life”]. I still wear it on my sleeve.”
“Bruce is not what you’d call a religious Jew,” says his Father. “But he’s a very ethnic Jew. He says, ‘I was brought up Jewish. It’s an important tradition. It’s an important part of my identity…’”
Adds Barbara, “He’s a person who might say, ‘I’m not necessarily going to go to temple all the time, but I’m going to make sure anyone who wants to can always have the opportunity.”
“Being Jewish and being an athlete,” says Pearl, “I was big on breaking down stereotypes.”
Pearl grew up near Boston around the era of forced school busing, when passions had spotlighted racial divisions—between Catholics and Protestants, blacks and whites, let alone Jews—on the national stage. “With Boston’s diversity within religions and within ethnicity and within neighborhoods, there can be a lack of tolerance,” says Pearl. “It bothered me to my core. I’ve always tried to try to show people that we’ve all got so much more in common than we do apart.”
Where Eagles Dare
Pearl didn’t make coach Tom Davis’ BC basketball team as a walk-on, but he practiced with the team, refereed practices, and did whatever he could to be helpful.
Since Pearl was a marketing major, Davis, now the coach at Drake, asked him to put together a program marketing the BC basketball program.
Pearl formed the Courtside Club, sold ads for radio broadcasts and, famously, for a 1981 first-round NCAA tournament game against Ball State, once wore the Eagle mascot outfit when the regular mascot was sick. Over time, Pearl became Davis’ right-hand man.
At one point, Pearl was working on a project with his best friend and suitemate, Rich Shrigley, a four-year starter on the BC basketball team whose uncle was the late Norm Sloan, the longtime Florida coach who won a national title in 1974 coaching the great David Thompson at North Carolina State.
Pearl needed to get his part of the project typed. Shrigley said his sister, Kim, who worked in Boston, typed papers. Pearl brought the paper over and met Kim for the first time, but not the last, as they began to see each other. “Rich wasn’t real happy about it.”
Being the niece of a high-profile basketball coach was probably helpful preparation for Kim’s future life. Says Pearl. “She would understand what a ridiculous life she would lead should she choose to marry a coach.”
Nearing graduation, Pearl, a business major, had tempting job offers in sales, including one as district manager for men’s toiletries for Procter and Gamble.
But Davis, who’d been hired by Stanford, offered Pearl a job as personal assistant, to try out coaching to see if he’d like it. Pearl took a chance. The position evolved into assistant coach at Stanford (1982-86) and then at Iowa (86-92), when Davis moved there.
Call Me Ishmael
Pearl knows what it is to be sent into the desert.
In December of 1988, as an assistant at Iowa, Pearl was recruiting Deon Thomas, a 6’9” Chicago high school and an Illinois “Mr. Basketball.” Early on Thomas said he wanted to come to Iowa. But then he started to change his mind. In extended notes, Pearl wrote that Thomas told him that Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins told Thomas that his grandmother could move to a nicer building if he signed with the Illini. When Thomas told the Illinois assistant that his grandmother didn’t want to move, the coach offered to have her place fixed up.
Over the next few months Pearl taped conversations and kept track of what he heard. On Feb. 1, 1989, Thomas told Pearl he’d been offered $80,000 and a new Blazer if he would sign a letter of intent to come to Illinois. This was the most Illinois had—to that point—offered a recruit.
Pearl wrote it all up and turned it in to the NCAA, which started a huge, nasty fracas.
None other than TV commentator Dick Vitale said it was “totally unethical” to tape the phone call and said he had committed “professional suicide,” but Pearl got supporting letters from such eminences grises as Lute Olson and Dean Smith. Some of the accused parties started a ridiculous campaign saying it was Pearl who had done the offering.
Although these specific allegations were never proven, Illinois was nailed on other infractions and placed on probation in 1991.
Pearl was as popular with Illinois as Phil Fulmer is with Alabama. You can still find a blog on the Internet entitled, “Bruce Pearl: Get ready, rat, because the Illini are coming.”
Pearl’s head-coaching job opportunities were narrowed to Division II Southern Indiana (1992-2001), where he won a Division II National Title in 1995, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2001-2005), a commuter school where he managed to do well on the national recruiting scene despite being generally overshadowed in the state by Wisconsin-Madison, Marquette, and Wisconsin-Green Bay. In those 13 years, Pearl reached the 300-win level faster than any coach in NCAA history except Roy Williams of Kansas and North Carolina.
“Some say I committed coaching suicide by doing what I did,” says Pearl. “Well, I’m here.”
“I’m an idealist,” he continues. “As a teacher, as an educator working with young people, I’ve got to do the right thing. It’s taught me to handle adversity in my life as a coach and a teacher. That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” In practical terms, says Pearl, his experience handling adversity means, “We’re never out of a game.”
Genesis to Exodus
So let’s review once more the Old Testament saga that led Tennessee to Bruce Pearl.
Back in the 1980s Don Devoe was a good man and a solid coach who in 1989 was thrown into a pit and sold to camel caravan. As Joseph did in Egypt, DeVoe ended up thriving at Navy before retiring in 2004.
In his place came Wade Houston, a man whose boss at Louisville, Denny Crum, once worked for John Wooden at UCLA. In college basketball, this is the equivalent of having worked with Moses. Houston came from Maryville, which was nice. He was also the SEC’s first black coach—a positive for Tennessee that Doug Dickey ruined by making it clear he wouldn’t enjoy the standard membership to Cherokee Country Club that was part of every coach’s package.
Houston had a son, Allan, who was a great college player and recently retired from an amazing NBA career. But Houston the elder let the workers in his vineyard toil as they pleased, and he wasn’t much of a recruiter, and the basketball was ugly, and UT let him go after five years.
Tired of the gentlemanly Houston, UT sought out Kevin O’Neill, a foul-mouthed, no-nonsense, defense-oriented Yankee whose aggressive recruiting exploits became national legends. He once dressed up in a gorilla costume to impress a recruit and bugged recruits’ rooms to find out what they were thinking. If a recruit said he thought the girls weren’t good looking on a campus, O’Neill would make sure the impression was remedied. Like King David writing the Psalms, O’Neill introduced UT athletics to some choice New York State vocabulary. “How else is an Irishman supposed to express himself?” asked his own mother about O’Neill’s salty expletives.
When O’Neill first beheld living-legend-Voice-of-the-Vols John Ward, he said, “I’m going to mess with that guy.” Soon after, he uttered a “p” word during a post-game show.
O’Neill’s recruiting brought plenty of talent, but O’Neill is said to have shared a particular weakness with King David. When cell-phone records indicated not one but several Bathshebas around town, O’Neill departed for the NBA.
Maybe Jerry Green was Lot. He won 20 games and made the NCAA tournament four straight years. His team once got to the NCAA Sweet 16, but they blew that 10-point lead to North Carolina and Green turned into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife.
Buzz Peterson was Job, in a way--such a nice guy, who kept having rotten luck. In his first weeks, his two experienced guards came up positive for smoking dope. With savvy, sharp-shooting guards, basketball teams tend to look pretty good. With the loss of those two Peterson lost his best chance of starting out on a good foot, and it went downhill from there.
After all that, we know what we don’t want—all of the above.
But what do we want?
Family Life in Knoxpatch
Pearl certainly has a better PR sense than a couple of his predecessors.
“Culturally, BP is a bit like O’Neill, in that he’s a direct northeastern guy and would seem at first glance to be an odd fit in K-ville,” says SI’s Alex Wolff. “But his personality is much more positive than KO’s, and my sense is that he’ll wear a whole lot better. Which wouldn’t be all that hard, of course.”
O’Neill was from upstate New York, a few miles from the Canadian border, and went to college at McGill, the Harvard of Canada. Where O’Neill didn’t care what anyone thought and happily said so, Pearl has spent much of his life trying to influence what people think, from being a jock with compassion to wearing his religious faith on his sleeve.
That contrast was clearest in the last few minutes of their respective welcome-to-town interviews, when the reporter asked each new coach how he and his family like their new home.
O’Neill answers, “I don’t care where I am as long as we’re winning. If we lose, we’ll go somewhere else.”
The question is posed again, with a hint: “Does your son like his new school?” A shrug.
“Do you like the trees and mountains?” Nothing. An opportunity to make polite compliments, but O’Neill won’t bite.
Asked the same questions, Pearl gushes. “We were surprised at how much we felt right at home. We feel very comfortable at Heska Amuna Synagogue. We feel welcome. Our kids have more friends than in four years at Milwaukee.”
His son, 6’5” Steven, likes West High, where he is playing on the basketball team and has a chance of being recruited by a Division I basketball school.
“He’s worked at it and really gotten better,” says a proud Dad.
Daughter Leah likes sixth grade at Bearden Middle. Son Michael likes fourth grade at Rocky Hill Elementary and Pilot football. Older daughter Jacqui, a sophomore at Wisconsin-Madison, is transferring to UT. “We’re a close family. We want to be together.”
Kim got the courses she needed in Wisconsin and recently took her nursing boards to become a nurse practitioner.
Hunger for Knowledge; Fear of Failure
At the Division II level, Pearl says there were so many excellent outside shooters that he had to learn to be a better teacher of man-to-man defense, and studied under the venerable Bob Huggins of Cincinnati, who was mentioned briefly for the UT job last March.
While at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl got to know and learn important hoops wisdom from the legendary George Karl, then the coach of the NBA Milwaukee Bucks. For example? “Help defense is overrated and don’t give away the threes,” says Pearl. In Milwaukee, Pearl also met and befriended a fellow Jew and former UT All-America Ernie Grunfeld, who was working in the Bucks front-office. Grunfeld later put in a good word to the UT Athletic department. That helped speed along the hiring process last March.
Pearl recently sat down for five hours with Pat Summitt talking Xs and Os. “What makes Pat the best college basketball coach, man or woman, is her hunger for knowledge. She thinks she doesn’t know it all, even though she does. She thinks, ‘Someday, I’m going to be a good coach.’”
So what keeps Pearl going? “Fear of failure,” he says. “I’m afraid to fail. Nobody likes to win more than I do. And Jewish guilt. I just can’t feel like I can do enough for my players. I feel inadequate as a coach, as a father, as a husband. I feel like I have 25 pounds of problems to fit in a 10-pound bag every day. There are so many people that I’ve got to work for. That’s why I have the team over to our house so much. My team is part of my family. I have the kids travel with me on the road sometimes. My job is such a big part of my life.”
Pearl took one cue from Summitt and gave his team the Performance Plus personality assessments. Summitt started using them a decade ago on the suggestion of Knoxville auto dealer Bill Rodgers, who found them helpful in motivating his staff to sell Cadillacs—every salesman’s motivation is different, and Rodgers wants to get the best out of each of them.
The assessments’ potential value on the basketball floor was brought home quickly to Summitt. She had been butting heads with her too-flashy point guard, Michelle Marciniak, when the Performance Plus results came back and gave them both a surprise—in many ways they were very much alike, especially in their intense desire to win. The insight helped them sort out their sources of friction and win the 1995 national title.
Jerry Green, who arrived in town just three years later, said he didn’t believe in such things—that an educator should know his players without the help of tests. Yeah, yeah. But in hindsight, Green could probably have benefited from any numbers of tools or gimmicks in sorting out the problems he faced in trying to turn unbridled point guard Tony Harris into a team leader, to mold super-talented Vincent Yarbrough into a polished player and to inculcate his team with the mental toughness and discipline to hang onto 10-point leads in the last five minutes of Sweet 16 ballgames.
The anti-Green, Pearl is eager to learn and to try anything to get an edge. He says he got mostly what he expected from the results of the Performance Plus tests, “with a few surprises.” For example? “One of my better players was not as confident as I would have assumed he was about getting criticism publicly. According to the test, he can handle all kinds of criticism privately, but he’d prefer it not be in front of others. So I’m careful about expressing that in front of his teammates.”
Pearl might have figured that out, or he might have burned a bridge to a player without knowing it. When you’ve got nine scholarship players, you can’t really afford to alienate any of them.
Pearl emphasizes strength and fitness. Playing an attacking game with limited numbers, they have to be fitter. “We’re bigger and stronger than we were last spring.”
He is known to work out with his team and reportedly bench-presses 300 pounds.
When Jemere Hendrix, who had earlier been charged with possession of marijuana and driving without a license, threw a punch at a football player at a party, Pearl threw him off the team and put wrong-man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time Andre Patterson, a senior forward, on probation.
“We’re going to have discipline in the program.”
Pearl is working tirelessly to recruit the talent that will make the program successful in the long term. “I’ve taken two or three days off since April.”
He’s already signed three of the top 50 prospects in the nation—Marques Johnson, a 6’6” forward from Ft. Wayne, Ind.; Wayne Chism, a 6’8” power forward from Bolivar, Tenn., and Duke Crews, a 6’7” forward from Hampton, Va. It’s worth noting that only one of those signees is from Tennessee. To compete at the national level, you’ve got to recruit at the national level.
Pearl is selling recruits on Tennessee. He tells recruits, and anyone else who will listen, that a team that lives up to the potential here can fill up that arena and beat Kentucky. “Nobody has greater potential in the SEC with the exception of Kentucky.” No excuses, just a positive vision of the possibilities. “We’ve beaten Kentucky 62 times. Vandy is next in the conference with 39.”
In a ticket-sales letter to the “UT Faithful” in the Nov. 2 News Sentinel, Pearl wrote, “Tennessee is the crown jewel of all universities, and my staff and I are thrilled to be a part of the UT tradition and heritage…I can promise you that my team will give their all every night on both ends of the floor. You will see players diving for loose balls, playing in-your-face defense, banging bodies for rebounds and leaving every ounce of energy on the hardwood. We will compete and compete hard!
“Someday soon, I envision a packed Thompson-Boling arena, similar to how things were in the old days of Stokely. We will feed off the crowd’s energy when C.J. [Watson] makes an incredible dish, hear the crowd roar when Major [Wingate] slam dunks or listen to a rain of ‘threeeeeeeeees’ when Chris [Lofton] hits one from downtown.”
Pearl’s relentless positivism extends to avoiding the news coverage: “I’m upset reading the papers because of the criticism of the football program. That hurts us in recruiting. Our competition tells recruits that the media [here] will be so critical of you when you lose. But when we win, it will be off the charts. Our following will rival Kentucky’s.”