Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bruce Pearl can flat out coach

Yeah, I said it. The truth hurts sometimes. I don't necessary like the man, but it has more to do with him coaching at Tennessee then any other factor.

Bruce Pearl has done the impossible. He made Tennessee MEN'S Basketball matter! Now he's on the verge of punching a ticket to the Final 4 if his team can beat the equally talented mastermind Tom Izzo and Michigan State this afternoon.

This is no small task what Pearl is accomplishing (no, I'm not talking about creepy moments with Lane kiffin's wife). He took over a program in disarray from the imcompetent Buzz Peterson and Jerry Green's lack of discipline earlier in the decade. Add in the troubled regime of Kevin O'Niel and the lack of success of the Wade Houston era, Tennessee hadn't seen much success let alone winning records since Don Devoe in the 1980's.

But now its 2K10, and Pearl routinely has the Vols in the Sweet 16. Making the NCAA tournament has become an afterthought since he's made it 5 consecutive times since taking over in Knoxville in 2006. Pearl cut his teeth as head coach at D-2 Southern Indiana, winning a national title. Then at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he routed higher seeded Alabama and Boston College on the way to the Sweet 16, paving the way for his run to Knoxville.

The fact that Pearl is winning in Knoxville is remarkable. Tennessee was the worst men's job in America at one of the Power 6 conferences(that title recently belonged to Auburn, but with a new arena & coach, current contenders include Penn St, Northwestern & Rutgers). Look at what your up against. First, its a football school, not shocking for the SEC, but UT routinely has drawn 100,000 on Fall Saturdays for years. Secondly, Pat Summitt & the Lady Vols. UT fans love their Lady Vols and why not. They have the winningest coach and the national titles to go with the wins. It was routine for the Lady Vols to outdraw the men in crowd size. I remember Alabama playing a game there in the early 90's and 10,000 showed up for the men's game. They cleared the gym out and the Lady Vols drew 20,000 later in the evening!
Another reason UT was a terrible job was the arena, Thompson-Boling Arena. Its 23,000+ seats was designed to rival Rupp Arena. Problem is you get 15,000 at a game and it still looked empty compared to a smaller venue that seated 10,000 and was sold out. Add in that Tennessee is not a hotbed for high school basketball and you had a recipe for disaster.

But Pearl has taken a place so many have failed at and is getting the job done. First, instead of fighting football or the Lady Vols for attention, he embraced the traditions and probably has garnered more support in the process. He's a shameless promoter/marketer, stopping throughout the southeast talking to Vol Club groups, attempting to get fans to support his team at road venues throughout the SEC. Its routine now to see 2-3,000 Vol fans at places like Athens & Auburn when they hit the road. He makes appearances across campus to get students to come out and support his team. Thompson-Boling Arena has been renovated to include sky boxes, new scoreboards and is now a state of the art facility.

Add into this mix that Pearl is a very good game day coach, he's passionate and his team's play hard for him. As a result, he gets the most out of his talent. UT suspeneded 4 players hours before taking on Kansas in January, but never fear, Pearl turned to some lighly played walk ons to provide rest minutes for his remaining players and pulled off the upset of the year. By using his bench, he's kept team morale up and now is marching towards Indianapolis by putting the Vols into their first Elite 8.

Still a long way to go for Pearl to reach the Lady Vols, but its a work in process. You can bet Pat Summitt will be home watching the UT Men this afternoon and if they get to Indy, she'll be their supporting them too. Hopefully she won't be wearing that cheerleader outfit.

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