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."A Long, Hard Journey
Training with his players was a habit Pearl learned as a hardscrabble Division II coach at Southern Indiana, where he spent nine years from 1992 to 2001, doing without luxuries such as a strength coach. His long stint there was partly self imposed and partly a professional purgatory, the result of the most controversial episode in his biography. He was a rising protege of former Iowa coach Tom Davis in 1989 when he made himself infamous in the profession for taping a conversation with a recruit and using it to turn in Illinois to the NCAA for recruiting violations. He had violated a code of honor among thieves. He found himself shunned and blackballed from head coaching jobs. He still says he would do it again.
Pearl temperamentally was incapable of keeping his mouth shut, once he decided something was wrong. As for ostracism, that didn't scare him. He is the grandson of an Austrian Jew who came to America in the 1920s and lost scores of relatives in the Holocaust. He was reared conservatively by his parents, Barbara and Bernie Pearlmutter, a salesman who shortened the name to Pearl for convenience sake, in Boston in the racially charged 1970s. He learned to think hard about right and wrong on social issues such as forced busing, to appreciate the ethnic mix of Boston from Southie to the North End, and to defend his faith with his fists.
"I grew up watching kids swing at each other because their skin was a different color," he says.
Pearl was a three-sport star at Sharon High who consciously set out to counter stereotypes. "And of course there was something stereotypically not tough about being Jewish," he says. He resented it when the annual athletic banquets would begin with "In Christ's name we pray." It made him feel discounted, excluded. God was with him, too, he told himself. When his friends crossed themselves, he made the Star of David.
When he was a senior, he was playing first base one afternoon when a base runner called him a "Jew Boy." Pearl tapped his glove, signaling the pitcher to throw to first. When the ball slapped into Pearl's mitt, he whirled, smacked it into the runner's face and started swinging. "I went to dukes," he says. He was tossed from the game.
He had his choice of local colleges, but he specifically chose Boston College because it was the best sports school in town, and because he wanted to prove a Jewish student could make it at a Catholic university.
"I wanted kids to meet someone who was Jewish, and have them say, 'Gosh, you don't look Jewish, or act Jewish,' " he says. "I wanted to talk about religion, to have those discussions."
His playing career at BC flamed out because of a series of knee injuries, but he met Davis, who hired him to help whip up enthusiasm in the student body. Pearl became a boy Friday.
"Manager, trainer, bus driver, whatever we needed, he was there," Davis says. "The thing you have to understand is that he literally worked his way up from the bottom of the profession."
By the time Pearl was a senior, Davis was so impressed that he put him on his staff. Pearl stayed with Davis for the next 14 years: They moved on to Stanford, where they restored a program that had had 20 straight losing seasons, and then to Iowa. It was Davis who taught Pearl that with enough conviction and energy, even a bad strategy could work.
"It's not what you do, it's how you do it," Davis says.
The philosophy stood Pearl in good stead after the NCAA debacle, and so did the support of Davis, who "understood it," Davis says. "There was no winners in that situation. You just had to move on."
Finally in 1992, Pearl took the only head coaching job he could find, at Southern Indiana. There, Pearl flipped a team that had won only 10 games the year before. The Screaming Eagles went 22-7 in his debut season, were national runners-up in 1994 and won the Division II national title in 1995. Pearl took immense pride in their success; in some ways he believed Division II was a purer form of coaching, because there were fewer resources.
"I loved the 94 feet," he says.
For nearly a decade, Pearl was content at Southern Indiana. But in 2001, it dawned on him that peers he had grown up with in the profession, guys such as Tom Crean and Tom Izzo, were established Division I coaches, and worse, so were much younger men he knew. "I'm settling," Pearl told himself.
That led him to accept an offer from a downtrodden mid-major, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Panthers had never so much as appeared in the NCAA tournament. "I didn't want to sit on my porch some day and say, 'I wonder if I could have done it this level,' " Pearl says. He didn't have to ask himself the question for long. In 2005, Pearl and UW-Milwaukee swept to the round of 16 with a school-record 26 victories. That prompted the call from Tennessee.'He's Just So Dynamic'
Pearl hit Knoxville with a blast of sheer exuberance, thrilled to finally have his shot at a major program. Other coaches had found it difficult to compete on a campus dominated by the giant presences of Pat Summitt, who has led the Lady Vols to seven national titles, and a big-time football team coached by Phillip Fulmer. The Vols had been through seven men's basketball coaches in the 30 years before Pearl arrived, with only middling success.
But Pearl's rampant personality held its own with Summitt and Fulmer. They could have found him intrusive, but instead were disarmed. Summitt became a particularly fast friend.
"He's just so dynamic, so engaged," she says. "It's fun being around him, fun to be around someone who always sees the good in everything."
The Vols promptly won 22 games and climbed to a No. 8 ranking. Pearl was a whirlwind on the sideline, waving his players up and down the floor and sweating so hard that it showed through his sport coat. "He was just contagious," says Bradshaw, who became Pearl's floor general.
In the offseason, he made them sprint up a concrete ramp 20 times until their stomachs heaved. He suspended Major Wingate, his star senior center, for breaking team rules and then dismissed him altogether. That left him with six players who never had played a minute in Division I. Yet last season, the Vols set season records for points (2,831), steals (336), assists (546) and three-pointers (327), and reached the round of 16 before they lost to eventual national runner-up Ohio State, 85-84, on a free throw.
"The thing I admire," Summitt says, "is that they're so relentless. They just come at people."
Meantime, Pearl's quest to win over the community was just as energetic. He stormed the campus dining halls, shaking students' hands and pleading for their attendance. He showed up at every football game, baseball game and women's basketball game.
"He jumped on the Tennessee bandwagon," Summitt says. "If there was an event, he was at it. He could be elected mayor in a heartbeat."
There were some Tennesseans with whom Pearl struggled for acceptance, however. Billy Smith was a factory worker with terminal lung cancer, and the father of star local recruit Tyler Smith. The Smiths were unhappy with the firing of Pearl's predecessor, Buzz Peterson. Billy Smith didn't know Pearl and didn't trust him. Instead, he sent his son off to Iowa.
But as a freshman at Iowa, Tyler grew homesick, despite making third-team all-Big Ten last season. He insisted he wanted to transfer back home, in part so he could care for his father. Last spring, an ailing Billy reluctantly began to hang around the program, watching Pearl work. He talked at length to Bradshaw, who had become almost a surrogate son to Pearl. "They looked at the evidence of my relationship with Coach Pearl and what a father figure he could be," Bradshaw says. Finally one afternoon, Billy pulled Pearl aside.
"He told him he wanted him to finish the job of raising me," Tyler Smith says. When Billy died in September, Pearl escorted the entire team to the funeral. He told Tyler, "Your father left it in my hands."
"Every time I mess up, he tells me that," Tyler says.
Pearl's relationship with the Smiths exposed the well of emotionalism underneath the clown. According to Summitt, he's a notoriously easy weeper. "You can't fake what he does," she says.
If there is a subject on which Pearl is most passionate, it's his Judaism, about which he talks so feelingly that his eyes well up. When he first arrived in Knoxville, some local Christian worshipers invited him to church and told him they wished he would make Jesus his personal savior, so he could get to heaven. It wasn't enough for Pearl to politely inform them he was Jewish and attended synagogue. He described the role of God in his life, how he worshiped, lit candles, believed in mitzvahs. (Some of the local Christians still invite him to church.)
When Pearl took his team on tour of Europe last summer, he scheduled a stop at the Terezin concentration camp. As they toured the site, he told his players, "They killed 6 million of us 50 years ago 'cause of how we prayed."
Shortly before the team reconvened on campus this fall, Pearl's daughter Leah celebrated her bat mitzvah, and Pearl invited his players. He beams as he tells the story of how warm it made him feel to gaze through the crowd at the Heska Amuna synagogue and see his players towering over the heads of the guests, some of the Vols 6 feet 9 or taller.
"Here came these talk, dark, handsome men, all wearing yarmulkes," Pearl says delightedly. Then he adds his favorite detail: how he heard some of the players greeting the other well-wishers.
"They were going, 'Shalom, y'all.' "