When word came out in 2005 that Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton was getting ready to name a new coach for the BasketVols, I had four major reasons to be skeptical:
Houston, O’Neill, Green, and Peterson...
Since Don DeVoe’s departure in 1989, Tennessee had resigned itself to hiring a new coach every three years or so. None of the coaches they had hired had managed to improve the program substantially for more than the briefest of periods. With the exception of Kevin O’Neill -- who was really a great coach, but never truly got the chance to build a program due to the meddling of "The Big Dickey" -- none of the coaches walking the sidelines at Tennessee since DeVoe seemed to understand what it took to win basketball games in the SEC, and Wade Houston, at times, didn’t even seem to understand the rules of basketball.
The announcement was made in March of 2005 at UT’s Thompson-Boling Arena which -- at the time -- should have simply been called "The Big Brown Box." The press conference was attended by a grand total of somewhere on the order of 12 people: Bob Kesling (who was required to attend), the Knoxville Snooze-Slantinel’s John Adams and his ego (counts as 2 people), 2 reporters from the student-run Daily Beacon (one of which wrote a story about the other writing a story), Gus Manning and Haywood Harris (who were unable to get an afternoon tee time that day), and five students who mistook the event for their afternoon Anthropology lecture. Needless to say, there wasn’t a great deal of excitement.
Living nearly 6 hours away in ACC country, I read about the announcement online, and can still recall my initial reaction...
..."Who the hell is Bruce Pearl?"
Given the blessings of the internet, I quickly learned that Pearl had coached at Wisconsin-Milwaukee for four years. The only things I knew that came from Wisconsin were the Green Bay Packers, cheese, and snow. After all, wasn’t Wisconsin part of President Bush’s "Axis of Evil?"
For the briefest of moments, I wondered if maybe -- just maybe -- Mike Hamilton had found the proverbial "undiscovered great" who might bring competitive teams to Knoxville. Forget success, after all the failures of the preceding 15 years, I just wanted respectability. I pondered this briefly...
Nah, probably not...
This proves two very important things: 1) I am an overly cynical moron, and 2) I had no concept of Bruce Pearl’s mettle.
You simply have to see Bruce Pearl in action to appreciate his genius.
The 2005-06 season started like many before -- quietly. By its end, however, it was obvious that something was very different. Gone was the "Fight, Foul and Fret" scheme of Jerry Green, and there was no trace of Buzz Peterson’s "Flash and Fade" offense. The Volunteers, the red-headed stepchild of the SEC for almost a generation, played competitively, made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, and -- lo and behold -- showed that "hustle" was not an outdated concept on the hardwood. Final record: 22 - 8 (12-4 SEC, 1st in the SEC East).
Still, after all of the disappointments of the previous decade, I was reluctant to believe that any lasting success was in the cards for the Vols. Nonetheless, I was pretty impressed with what "that Pearl guy" had accomplished in only one season, as I came to the horrifying realization that the Florida Gators had won the National Championship, and began counting the days until football season.
Then, in September of 2006, it was announced that Coach Pearl had dismissed Major Wingate from the squad. My heart sank...
...Oh well, winning was a neat idea.
On one hand, I was glad that Pearl was trying to run an honest and clean program, and hold his players accountable for violations of the rules (...ahem ... wink, wink, Britton Colquitt), but I knew (or thought I knew) Wingate’s dismissal was a sign that the BasketVols were destined to return to return to their past level of painful mediocrity.
Boy was I wrong...
After shaking off the cobwebs and making adjustments as a result of Wingate’s absence, the Vols proceeded to start playing with an intensity and drive I had never seen before. They improved with each successive game. Next thing I knew, I heard people mumbling about a "winning streak" -- I had thought that, like prostitution and dancing, those were illegal in Tennessee.
Then, came something I never thought I’d see -- a Tennessee coach getting excited about the university. When I first heard that Bruce Pearl had shown up at a Lady Vols game painted orange, I thought it was a joke. Then, when I saw the video, I was amazed. I simply could not believe that we had a coach who: 1) cared enough about the university to get out and support a team other than his own; 2) was willing to have a little fun and laugh at himself; and 3) was so willing to reach out to the fans and let them know he was one of them. It was then I realized that we had something special on our hands in the form of Bruce Pearl.
Then, when tournament time rolled around, I realized that the BasketVols had a seeding that only had a single digit. I had always been told that all NCAA seedings were required to be divisible by 10.
Soon it became apparent that the Vols were not only competitive, they were pretty darn good. Before I realized it, they were in the Sweet 16 getting ready to play number 1 seeded Ohio State. Although they could have beaten the Buckeyes of Ohio State, the BasketVols ultimately lost, however for the first time since ... well ... ever, I found myself beginning to believe that anytime the Vols played, they could win. What’s more, it was obvious that they believed this too. Final record: 24 - 11 (10-6 SEC, 2nd in the SEC East)
Thus, I began looking forward to basketball season as soon as I got done, once again, retching at the thought that the Gators had won the National Championship.
Who knew that it was only going to get better...
This season opened with the Vols pounding the snot out of several so-called "directional" schools before facing -- what’s this -- real basketball programs in the non-conference schedule. Even more encouraging -- with the exception of the game against Texas -- the Vols won these games. What’s more, the Vols just kept winning as they worked their way into the SEC regular season. As the game against Memphis approached, I finally came to believe -- really believe -- that Bruce and the Barbarians not only could beat any team on any given night, but that they would win. Suddenly, "The Big Brown Box" was gone (having apparently fallen into the Tennessee River) and in its place was a rockin’ joint known as the Tommy Bowl.
It was then that I came to understand that, though less than perfect, though unconventional, though a continuing work-in-progress, the BasketVols were rapidly approaching the point of greatness. I also knew they would be tested like never before when they hit the road to meet John Calipari and the Gold Teeth Brigade.
As fate would have it, despite stubbing their toe painfully versus the Kentucky Wildcats, the Vols met the -- then -- undefeated Tigers in a No 2 vs. No 1 matchup that simply could not have been planned out under any circumstance. The whole nation would be watching (with the exception of the Snooze-Slantinel, which was doing a series on Kentucky Fescue 31 and John Adams’ favorite showtunes). After all of those "almosts," after decades of "in other scores" treatment on ESPN, and after a generation of having nothing to point to other than "Ernie and Bernie," it was the Vols chance to shine, and boy did they shine!
Now the Vols sit atop the world of college basketball and the view is awfully nice. It is truly amazing how far we’ve come under Bruce Almighty, and what’s even more amazing, is the fact that this is just the beginning. Under Bruce Pearl, Tennessee has been transformed from a completely lackluster goat to a top-level program which has people taking notice and the "regal" programs of the college basketball world taking notes. True, Bruce Pearl’s approach is not traditional, and it is not conventional. True, Tennessee does not have the tournament experience of any of the traditional powerhouses. True, Tennessee does not have a tradition of winning.
Of course, traditions have to start somewhere...
The fundamental thing I love about Bruce Pearl, however, is the way he coaches his teams. He is as active on the sidelines as anyone I’ve ever seen. He coaches for the entire game -- sometimes dragging his team, kicking and screaming, toward a victory. It is also obvious that his players love playing for him -- and not just because he has made them winners. The bond between Pearl and his players seems amazingly strong -- one built on trust. Even more remarkable, is the way that Pearl-coached teams seem to love playing with one another. I am convinced that Pearl’s greatest asset is his ability to create a team -- whether it be with his players, with his staff, or the fickle and unwieldy fans who wear orange. His enthusiasm is intoxicating and his ability to create a sense of togetherness and belonging is unprecedented at Tennessee.
Now, we all know that Tennessee will not have seasons as magical at this one every year. There is no question that the BasketVols will have losses, and most likely will have bad season-long runs in the future under Coach Pearl. The fact remains, however, now people are excited, now the program is energized, now the Vols have proven they can win. Furthermore, Bruce Pearl has left his calling card with all of the recruits across the nation -- via showing that Tennessee belongs with the big boys.
All of this is due to the man in charge. He has woken a part of the spirit of the Orange Nation, that most didn’t even know existed. He has reached out to the fans, and they have responded with their unqualified support. He is a fighter, a motivator, a strategist, a maverick, a joker, and a little bit of a con man. The most important thing is, however, he’s ours.
Mike Hamilton, let’s make sure we keep it that way for a very long time to come...
For the first time since the Ray Mears era, Tennessee fans can be proud of their basketball team. That is truly a special gift that Bruce Pearl has bestowed upon us over the last three years. I, for one, am beside myself at the thought that Tennessee is number 1 in the country. With Bruce Pearl at the helm, I have a feeling we may get to see it again soon.
In closing, the question remains what have we learned? Well, as mentioned above, we have unquestionably proven that I am an overly cynical moron. Now I know who Bruce Pearl is, and so does the rest of the college basketball universe. We have also learned one truth which is as sweet as it is surprising...
Never count out the man in orange...Gate 21.net