Pearl Has Converted The Faithful in Tennessee

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl has won over all the dogs and babies in Tennessee, and most of the Christians, too. After just a few minutes of listening to him, it's apparent why the people at this football-crazed university of the deep South have so quickly adopted a chattering, gesticulating, Yankee basketball coach who also happens to be, smothered gasp, Jewish. It would be easier to resist a steam press.

Pearl is sitting in his office on what is supposed to be a day off, one leg jiggling so hyperactively that a burly knee seems about to rip through his nylon warmups. In his third season with the Volunteers, he has given the school its best season ever at 30-4, and reason to believe. If the locals' first impression of Pearl was that he was one part salesman ("Kind of slick, with the hair gel," forward Tyler Smith says), and one part carnival barker (he painted his chest orange for a women's game last year), it's become obvious that he's real. You could give the guy stick figures for players and he would find a way to energize them -- and win.

The Vols lack a single McDonald's high school all-American on their roster, yet their pressuring, sprint-to-the rim style has racked up 76 victories in three seasons, kept them among the nation's top five all winter and earned them a No. 2 seed in the East Region. Though they have a tough NCAA tournament draw that leads straight to top-ranked North Carolina, Pearl is fairly barking with enthusiasm over their upset chances.

"I want teams to say, 'What in world is Tennessee so exited about?' " Pearl says. "Don't they know where they are? Don't they know they're about to get a whuppin'?' "

The Tennessee men's basketball team never has been beyond the round of 16. But the Vols already have done the unprecedented once this season, rising to a No. 1 ranking in late February with a victory over Memphis, and two weeks ago, they won their first outright Southeastern Conference regular season title in 41 years.

"We came from nothing, laughingstock of the SEC, to hanging that banner," guard Chris Lofton says. The Vols' tireless running game and stampeding defensive intensity suggest they can contend with anyone, and perhaps even make a national title run.

Another coach might be cautious about uttering that phrase, for fear of being labeled a blowhard. Pearl acknowledges, "I'm always running my mouth." But he is willing to say it, " 'cause it's the truth," he says. "I'm just being honest. This is a team that is capable of it. I want to set the bar. I want to get farther than we've ever gotten: Elite Eight. Never been there. Now you're one game from the Final Four."

This may be just bravado from Pearl, but if so, it's effective. Three years ago at his first team meeting, Pearl confronted a beaten-down squad that had gone 29-31 the previous two seasons combined and was expected to finish near the bottom of the SEC Eastern Division. The players took in a man with a stocky, deep-chested physique, rubbery animated features and a voice that sounded sort of like tires crunching over wet gravel. He exuded certainty.

Pearl demonstrated his seriousness of purpose the first time they went into the weight room. The players were working through their program, sweat soaked with their muscles standing out, when their 45-year-old new head coach entered. Pearl slid 285 pounds on a bar -- piling one weight after the other -- and bench-pressed it in front of his agape team. Over and over again, Pearl hoisted huge amounts of weight, slamming through sets, knowing perfectly well the effect it was having. "It's humiliating," he says, cheerfully. Just two players in the room could lift as much as he could.

"Not only did he get in the weight room with us, a lot of times he dominated it," says former team captain Dane Bradshaw, who graduated last year and now plays in the Netherlands. "It was pretty humbling."

The imposing performance gave him instant credibility -- and so did the record he brought with him. Lofton, intrigued, did some homework and discovered that Pearl had finished first or second in every league he ever had coached in and never had a losing season. He had guided programs to stunning reversals at every stop.

"He was a proven winner," Lofton says, "so I liked that about him."

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