Shiny Pearl in Knoxville

Oct. 16, 2006


By Douglas Kroll



Doug Kroll is an editor for, focusing on baseball.
E-mail here!

Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl can be looked at as something of a young - relatively speaking - basketball genius.  His career record as a head coach is 339-92, a .785 winning percentage.  In his first 13 years as a head coach, he led Southern Indiana to a Division II national championship in 1995, and two seasons ago, led Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16.  Pearl's magic has already rubbed off in Knoxville.


Leaving Milwaukee and the program he had built was no easy task.  Pearl was leaving behind seven soon-to-be seniors, which made it a difficult decision.  In fact, the Panthers were really building for last season, not the one in which they defeated Alabama and Boston College in the NCAA tournament.  But when the opportunity came to turn around a Tennessee program that was ready for change, Pearl couldn't resist.


Pearl, the second quickest head coach to get to the 300 win plateau - two years behind Roy Williams - inherited a team from Buzz Peterson that hadn't made the tournament during his four-year stay.  Attendance was sagging at the Thompson-Boling Arena, the second largest on-campus basketball facility in the nation (and under construction to hold even more than the current capacity of 24,535).  The Vols had just completed an uninspiring 14-17 season in '04-'05, which led to Peterson's departure and subsequent hiring at Coastal Carolina.  It was now Bruce Pearl's team.


The one thing the Vols did have was an experienced group that was tired of losing.  This played right into the hands of the first-year head coach. 


"I think that we had a lot of experience last year," Pearl said, "and so much can be gained from experience, including these guys had lost enough to know that they didn't want that feeling any longer.  They were very, very receptive to the new system and the coaching staff."


In what was one of the biggest turnarounds of the 2005-06 season, Tennessee vaulted to not only the top of the SEC, but to the top of the national scene as well.  The Vols won eight more games than they did a season before, and finished 22-8.  In the process, the boys from Knoxville went to the Big Dance with a No. 2 seed (the highest in school history), sent crowds pouring back into Thompson-Boling (having six crowds of over 20,000) and also secured an SEC East division championship.  Not bad, considering that the conference got six bids in the '05-'06 NCAA Tournament, boasts the defending National Champion, and had two teams in the Final Four (not to mention South Carolina winning the NIT).


Some, including Pearl, say that it's the style of play that he encourages that makes his players thrive.  It's an up-tempo style, as he likes his teams to get out and run, something that is evident when seeing that all of his teams have led the league in scoring since he's been a head coach. 


It's that run to the tournament, which ended in a loss to Wichita State, that so many of Pearl's recruits saw on television, and for a couple, made their decision of a lifetime much easier.  Not many coaches can say they were able to bring in a Top Ten recruiting class in only their second season on the job, minus the Roy Williams-es of the world.  Pearl has somehow been able to do that.


"We were very fortunate, and were able to clearly show an opportunity to play," Pearl said.  "Nobody lost more than we did in the SEC, as we lost 50 percent of our scoring and rebounding, but we were able to sign four of them in the fall, and they took our word, and with the kind of season that we had, we were able to bring in Ramar Smith in the spring."


The recruiting class includes practically two of Van Coleman's Top 50 - 6'7" forward Duke Crews (#25) and 6'3" guard Ramar Smith (#30) - not to mention the #51 recruit, 6'8" forward/center Wayne Chism.  It's easy to say how great these freshmen will be, but heading into '06-'07, the Vols only return one senior and three juniors from last year's squad, and a total of five serious contributors to last year's tournament team.  But Pearl knows what lies ahead.


"There really shouldn't be a lot of expectations with six new players who people have never seen before play a college basketball game," Pearl said.  "I think you have to let those guys play into whatever expectations are had for the following year, as sophomores, but we'll deal with it, we don't focus on the end result, we focus on the process."


One of those who are returning is Chris Lofton, a Wooden Award finalist who was named a second-team All American last year by the Sporting News after leading Tennessee with 17.2 points per game.  As is the case nearly every time there is a new regime brought in, Lofton thought about leaving the program, but after meeting with Pearl, that wasn't on the agenda anymore.


"I had considered some places here or there," Lofton said.  "But it all came down to after that meeting [with coach Pearl] that the best thing for me to do was to stay."


"A couple of guys had thought about [leaving]," Pearl said.  "We just asked those guys to give us a chance, and started our individual meetings right away.  Chris Lofton just wasn't sure that we'd win, that's why he was looking elsewhere. Not so much the coaching change, he just wanted to win."


And they're thankful he stayed, because without Lofton shooting that long jumper from the corner with time expiring against Winthrop, the Vols would have made a first-round exit from March Madness.


Pearl will also experience something completely new when the Vols begin their season Nov. 10th against Middle Tennessee State; his son will be in orange and white.  Steven Pearl, a 6'5" forward, hasn't had his dad watch too many of his basketball games, considering they have been both in-season at the same time.  But Pearl is looking forward to experiencing it together.


It's tough to think the Vols will be able to duplicate their season ago, a magical run that no one really expected.  With several key players gone, such as C.J. Watson (graduation) and Major Wingate (dismissed) - their second and third leading scorers last season - Pearl may find the SEC even tougher than it was last year, and expectations in East Tennessee have certainly been raised.  Either way, though, season ticket sales are off the charts, and the fans are back chanting "Good Ol' Rocky Top" in unison, something that had disappeared for too many years at the Thompson-Bolin.



Men's Basketball Home