By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On an October night in 2005, about a dozen Tennessee basketball players milled inside Thompson-Boling Arena and waited for the arrival of their new head coach. They had already heard rumors about Bruce Pearl's practices. For that night's "midnight madness" session, the Volunteers knew what to expect: a lot of running, a lot of yelling and three-plus hours of exhaustion.
Then Pearl walked out of the locker room wearing a gigantic sumo wrestler suit.
Over the next few hours, in his first official team practice since taking over that March, Pearl unveiled the personality that has made him one of the most popular, dynamic coaches in college basketball. He pulled random students from the stands and sumo-wrestled them. He made an impassioned speech to fans. He directed his players through a run-and-gun scrimmage.
"Right then, I was like, 'I'm playing for one of the boys,' " Tennessee guard Jordan Howell said. "He body-slammed a guy, too. It's crazy. He's like a college student out there, having fun like the rest of us."
Pearl has led fifth-seeded Tennessee back to the round of 16 for the first time since 2000 by relying on a strategy he refers to as "organized chaos." Pearl instructs his team to gamble for steals with full-court pressure defense and then fast break relentlessly, creating a frenzied pace of play. Then, after games, the coach sometimes acts like the leader of a fraternity house. He painted his chest and sat in the student section for a nationally televised Tennessee women's basketball game. He cracks locker room jokes so good his players often reuse them.
When Tennessee plays top-seeded Ohio State in San Antonio at 9:57 p.m. on Thursday, Pearl has a chance to further improve upon a surreal 24 months. Since he took over the Volunteers, Pearl has already accomplished what no other recent Tennessee coach has: He has turned a traditional football school into a burgeoning men's basketball powerhouse. Now, with a win Thursday, he can take the Volunteers into the NCAA tournament quarterfinals for the first time in the program's history.
"To me, a lot of this stuff is just unbelievably fun," Pearl said. "When it comes to a basketball game, I'm going to take that as seriously as anybody. But as long as we're taking care of business, I'm going to be myself. And I like to goof around."
His unconventional strategy has worked impeccably at Tennessee. The fourth Volunteers coach in 10 years, Pearl took over a program that often finished near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference and struggled to fill half of its arena's capacity. Now, two years later, the Volunteers have played in back-to-back NCAA tournaments and average more than 19,000 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Pearl captured the heart of Knoxville because he managed to both build a competitive team and sell himself. Before the season, he toured Tennessee dorms and chatted with freshmen students. He schedules 200 speaking engagements per year to raise money and personally meet thousands of fans and boosters.
In January, Pearl went to a Tennessee-Duke women's game with a handful of his players. A few minutes before tip-off, Pearl made his way to the front row of the student section and pulled off his shirt. He had painted his entire chest orange and then stenciled a grey "V" across his stomach.
"He's like one of us," junior guard JaJuan Smith said. "It could be a two-point game with five seconds left. In the huddle, he's going to tell you a joke to relax you. It's like he has three ages -- 18, 21 and then his real age."
And the chest-painting?
"That was definitely 18," Smith said.
During the first and second rounds in Columbus, Pearl reacted to each Tennessee success with the unbridled enthusiasm of an adolescent. When the Volunteers tied the NCAA tournament record for first-round points scored in a 121-86 thrashing of Long Beach State? "I can't believe we're capable of scoring like that," Pearl gushed. And when the Volunteers held on to beat fourth-seeded Virginia, 77-74, two days later? "Just to think that we're one of 16 teams left kind of knocks the wind out of you," Pearl said.
If it can somehow minimize the impact of Ohio State freshman center Greg Oden, Tennessee has the talent to advance even further. Smith, the guard, is one of the best defensive stoppers in the country. His back-court mate, Chris Lofton, averages 20.7 points and shoots three-pointers as well as anyone in the country.
For Pearl, the Ohio State game marks yet another reminder of how quickly his program has progressed. Just two months ago, the Volunteers lost at Ohio State, 68-66. Pearl scheduled that game -- even though it was "like scheduling a loss," he said -- because he figured his program would benefit from the exposure of a weekend game on national television.
"When you're at a place like Tennessee and you're not on the radar nationally, you've got to do things like that," Pearl said. "Obviously, the opportunity for us to make a splash against Ohio State gets even better this time around."