Pearl has gone from pariah to pied piper

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The blue thunder had been silenced, the perfect season destroyed and the wildest game of the season had been won. So now Bruce Pearl was trying to get the Tennessee fans losing their minds in joy to do the last thing in the world they wanted: be quiet.

He waved his hands for silence. The orange-clad mass that had gathered did as they were told because you don't dare disobey this coaching savior, certainly not after he done beat Memphis in the big one, 66-62.

So this Jewish Yankee stretched his arms out like a Southern preacher courtside on Saturday night and waited for silence.

It was a long time, a long way coming. He was the mascot in college. He was the assistant who blew the whistle on a rival recruiter for cheating. He was the castoff who Dick Vitale insisted had committed "career suicide." He had to go to the badlands of Division II basketball to start back on this path, won a national title and still no one would touch him for years.

Eventually, he found his way to Tennessee and embraced it like UCLA and then kept coming and coming until finally he surveyed the scene in John Calipari's gym and screamed into the biggest night of the college basketball season:

"How about them Vols?"

And the crowd went crazy, breaking into "Rocky Top" and "Bruce" chants and on and on until they spilled out into the night to try to drink Beale Street dry.

How about them soon to be No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers and this most unlikely top-ranked coach?

Bruce Pearl has never done anything like the staid coaching handbook says and he sure wasn't going to start now. Oh, he knows how to coach; there isn't any doubt about that. But play the part of the dour teacher?

He's having way too much fun for that. He paints his chest for Lady Vols games. He wears outrageous suits. He says crazy things and challenges everyone around him. He stands there after the greatest win in school history and tries to laugh the loudest, tries to enjoy it the most.

Two hours before this game of the year – a No. 1 vs. No. 2 tilt that had electrified the Mid-South – Pearl decided to stop in on an alumni party on his way to the game.

As nervous fans downed drinks in a crowded back room of Jillian's, Pearl barged through a side door and surprised them all. Then he took the microphone and let loose.

"All I can tell you is we're 40 minutes away from being No. 1,'' Pearl said, sending the crowd into a roar.

"With your help and God willing, we're going to kick their ass!"

You think Coach K would try that one?

"Why (do it)?" Pearl said. "Because this is what I started doing when I got here and I'm not going to change. Success is not going to change us. This is what we do. The hay is in the barn two hours before the game. I mean, there's no more tape to watch.

"That's part of my job, engaging our fans."

When you're No. 1 you get to write the rules. Not that he ever followed the ones written for him. At this point, he shouldn't change and shouldn't have to apologize to anyone.

He's long been a trailblazing breath of fresh air in a sport with too many self-important suits roaming the sidelines and he wasn't going to suddenly grow shy in the middle of this circus, with Priscilla Presley and Justin Timberlake leading the celebrity brigade in the stands.

Besides, you don't go from looking out of a mascot costume to looking down the national rankings at Mike Krzyzewski without a world of moxie.

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Bruce Pearl
(Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)
Bruce Pearl at a pep rally prior to Saturday's game vs. Memphis.

Pearl has a way of sweeping everyone right along with him, making everyone believe that the impossible is possible. When he took over at Tennessee, forever a middling SEC program, his first meeting with his players left their heads spinning.

Here was this ball of energy telling them that they'd soon be standing up to Kentucky and Florida, that they'd win the SEC one day, that No. 1 rankings and Final Fours were possible. Here was Pearl telling them the world was there for the taking.

Just two and a half years later, well, here they are.

"The only thing I wanted to focus on was, 'I don't know if we're the best team in the country, but I know we're 40 minutes from No. 1. I don't know if we're the best. But can you believe we are 40 minutes from being No. 1?' "

Perhaps only Pearl truly believed Tennessee would get this good, this soon, but he eventually got everyone to buy into it.

So here were the Vols, withstanding a ferocious start by this fearsome Memphis team, one that would have finished virtually any other team. The Tigers didn't enter the game 26-0 for nothing. But UT isn't 24-2 by accident either, so they matched the early fireworks, shook off the earthshaking crowd and then slowly, methodically took a victory for the ages.

"We (found) a way to win tonight," he said. "When you make the stops we did, rebound, execute? Great story."

Great story, indeed. Up next is a daunting swing with merely Tennessee's first outright SEC title in 41 years on the line. Pearl was trying to warn about that, trying to stay grounded, but it wasn't working. He was going to enjoy this.

His program had come a long way to get to the top. He had come so much further.

"It's not the time to reflect other than to be proud of who you are and where you're from and being very, very blessed," he said. "I spent nine years in Division II, 14 years as an assistant coach and like a lot of people in this country; this is the land of opportunity.

"What a great country."

So says the coach of its No. 1 team.