Wunderkind Bruce Pearl, the second-fastest National Collegiate Athletic Association coach in history to win 300 games, is also college basketball’s court jester and most boisterous booster. A grandson of Jewish immigrants from Sharon, Mass., Pearl, 47, has been bringing to bear his own combination of free-spirited offense and suffocating defense wherever he goes, most recently as head coach of the University of Tennessee men’s basketball program.
While some of Pearl’s coaching peers consider his antics annoying, there is no doubt that he has turned a moribund program completely around, evidenced most vividly February 23, when, in a heated game with the undefeated in-state rival Memphis Tigers, the Tennessee Volunteers pulled out a 66-62 victory that led to a No. 1 national ranking for Tennessee for the first time ever.
The ranking lasted only 29 hours, however, as Pearl’s squad lost to Vanderbilt two days later. But the team members have proved that they are more than just up-and-comers, and that talk of a Final Four appearance, perhaps even a championship, is more than just idle chatter.
In 2005, after a rise through the college coaching ranks, Pearl was named head coach of the Volunteers. Expectations weren’t high; the team had graduated its two leading scorers the previous year and finished with a record of 14 wins and 17 losses. It was also picked to finish at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.
Undeterred, Pearl rolled up his sleeves and went to work. By the end of his first season, the Vols had shocked the world of college basketball, winning the SEC East, posting a record of 22-8. By the end of Pearl’s second season, the Vols had beaten every team in the SEC at least once.
He had made the orange and white (Tennessee colors) relevant again, and it wasn’t long before Pearl transformed himself into a Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation: At first it was just a light-orange tie, then a light-orange suit, and not long after came the orange body paint.
Yes, body paint: Last January, Pearl attended a Lady Vols game and painted his upper body orange. He spelled out “Vols” with several of his players (Pearl was the V).
Beyond all the hype of basketball, Pearl carries his Jewish pride openly. Many coaches take their players on an exotic trip to help with the team-bonding process. Last year, Pearl took the Vols to a Czech concentration camp in order to teach team members about the Holocaust.
And when Pearl spoke at the United Jewish Communities conference last November, the Forward reported that he told the crowd: “We know who we are. We know our identity. We understand our challenges. We are one people.”
This story "Coach Makes Slam Dunk" was written by Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt.