On an afternoon in October 2005, Bruce Pearl led a visitor into an empty Thompson-Boling Arena. He raised his arms, looked around and said with memorable conviction, “We can win big here.”
The visitor was me, literally in my first day as a University of Tennessee beat reporter, and those words came from a man who had clearly waited a long, long time to say them.
He’d paid his dues, toiling in coaching obscurity as penance of being black-balled in most circles for the Iowa-Illinois scandal of the late 1980s. In 13 seasons at Southern Indiana and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl had won at least 20 games in 12 of them. Yet it wasn’t until UWM beat Alabama and Boston College to reach the Sweet 16 in 2005 that Pearl got the nibble from UT athletics director Mike Hamilton and a shot at that big-time job.
Now he had that chance, and at first, honestly, I was blown away by Pearl. It seemed like everyone in Knoxville was at the time.
Here was this brash, blunt, fast-talking Yankee with a Boston accent, old Jewish sayings and a remarkable enthusiasm and energy level that hinted the man never slept. He was so different from any coach at that level, and at Tennessee, he was a breath of fresh air amid a stale men’s program long overshadowed by the women’s team and a football team then developing the first cracks in Phillip Fulmer’s exterior.
He spoke to any group that would ask him. He stumped around campus, standing on lunch room tables, to get students to support his team. It worked, too. Men’s basketball games became the thing to do in Knoxville, a football town that started showing serious round-ball tendencies. By the end of December, more than 20,000 people were turning out during the holidays to watch Tennessee play Alabama A&M.
Hey, why not? This was fun stuff, and Pearl was everywhere, from singing on stage one night with Kenny Chesney to sending his team through the stands on the way to the court to ripping his shirt off after a big win at Rupp Arena to not wearing a shirt at all and painting his chest orange alongside his own players at a women’s game.
Stuffy coaches at other schools bristled at Pearl’s antics, but that only made Vols fans love Pearl more, because he was whipping most of those other guys on the court.
Pearl’s first Tennessee teams played a style that was exciting, effective and reckless. He called it “organized chaos,” and as soon as he arrived, the Vols began scoring a lot of points and winning a lot of games. They earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in a debut season that was actually expected to be a rebuilding year for the program.
Before the season ended, Pearl was handed an extension and a raise by Hamilton.
“It looks like he’ll be in Knoxville a long time,” his father Bernie Pearl told me at the time.
Those first few months of the Pearl era were a special time. They spawned a love affair between coach and fans that — to many — lasted all the way through Monday, when Pearl was fired as Tennessee’s head coach amid an NCAA investigation that proved to be his undoing.
Many fans, jilted and upset, probably won’t quite understand the decision, because it wasn’t about performance on the court or apathy among the program’s supporters. People should not blame Hamilton for Pearl’s firing. This clearly was coming from a much higher place, which is why it was so predictable. A major college cannot continue to support a coach (or a coaching staff) that willfully misled investigators without risking fierce reprisals from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. Tennessee has a date with that exact organization, and on Monday, it wisely cut Pearl to ease the burden of NCAA sanctions, much the same way Jim Harrick — another good, popular (and controversial) coach — was dispatched at Georgia little more than 10 years ago.
It happened so quickly, you can’t help but wonder where things got away from Pearl.
I’ll remember the man in the orange coat promising wins in an empty gymnasium, but I’ll also remember that for Pearl’s reckless style on the court, he could be far too reckless away from it, too. Even in the good old days, there was a definite side to that program that as a beat reporter made you a tad nervous about where the whole thing was headed, despite all the success.
Signs began popping up early. A player arrest that first season involved crack cocaine, and there always seemed to be some story or rumor floating around. There were potentially public bullets that Pearl and his team dodged behind the scenes those first few years.
Pearl’s luck couldn’t hold up forever, though. Off the court issues became factor that impacted his team’s performance. There was also tangible shift in the nature of this program. The run-and-gun Vols suddenly became a team that wanted to run the shot clock down on each possession, and a coach so quotable and outgoing began to withdraw a little bit from a public eye that was usually his ally. We know now that the NCAA was closing in behind the scenes, and Pearl may have known then that his job was at stake because of it.
This is a cautionary tale and an unfortunate one, but I do not think Monday was the last we’ve heard of Bruce Pearl.
“I absolutely was meant to do this,” Pearl once told me about his decision to be a coach. “I believe God put his hand on my shoulder and led me down this path. There’s no question in my mind.”
After nearly reaching the NCAA Elite Eight in his second season, Pearl had interest from some big-name schools that he did not choose to indulge. I remember asking him why at one point, and he replied, “I’m a man of many faults, but loyalty is not one of them.”
That may have been the truest statement I ever heard from the man. Pearl, deep down, felt loyal to Tennessee and Hamilton for giving him that chance, but despite wins on the court and excitement among the fan base, those faults were what cost him that opportunity anyway.
Gentry Estes, the senior writer at Dawgs247.com, covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Chattanooga Times Free Press between 2005-07