Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl has only been in the SEC four years, but he has assumed a leadership role. He leads by scheduling.
There was more than one reason for the recent down year in SEC basketball. But scheduling is a good place to start in assessing why seven conference teams won 21 or more games yet only three made the NCAA tournament.
Those feckless non-conference opponents with which the SEC spent much of December came back to bite conference teams in March. And it's no secret that SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who headed up the NCAA tournament selection committee, would like to see conference teams upgrade their schedules.
If he wants to make that point at this week's spring meetings, which begin today, he need look no further than UT's last schedule, which wasn't much different from Pearl's other three schedules. For four years, he has tried his best to schedule the best programs in the country.
And it has paid off with four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
"The way you make yourself relevant is through scheduling," Pearl said. "We don't have to have a top-five strength of schedule every year. But we need to be in the top 20 every year.
"Look at the teams we've played - Kansas, Memphis, Ohio State, Texas. Our fans got to see Kevin Durant. They have gotten to see the best players in college basketball."
That's just how Pearl planned it when he took over what had become an irrelevant program. He looked at a conference schedule that didn't have a UT game on CBS. Then, he called for help.
He called Texas, Memphis and Oklahoma State. He called anyone who could help put his team on television.
"I did it for ESPN," Pearl said. "And that's the truth."
He quickly got more than he bargained for. When the Vols upset Texas in Austin in his first season, they popped up in the top 25. They were suddenly relevant.
By scheduling top teams and beating enough of them, UT has remained relevant. You will see more of the same next season when, for example, national championship contender Kansas comes to Thompson-Boling Arena.
Such scheduling gives the Vols more than exposure. It enhances their strength of schedule for NCAA tournament purposes.
"If you're going to play the Big 12, play Texas and Kansas," Pearl said. "If you're going to play the Big Ten, play Ohio State and Michigan State. It's about name recognition. It's about RPI.
"That's why we went to Kansas instead of another Big 12 school. It's hard to win at Texas A&M, but you don't get the credit (if you do win)."
He has taken a similar approach in scheduling mid-majors. He avoids the bottom feeders and seeks out the upper-echelon teams from mid-major conferences.
There's a risk in scheduling the likes of Western Kentucky, Belmont and Chattanooga - particularly when you do it at a neutral site. Pearl is willing to take that risk but understands why others might not, pointing out that in the last two years three conference coaches have been fired during the season.
"We've had eight new coaches (since Pearl has been at UT)," he said. "We've had seven firings, and Tubby (Smith at Kentucky) was encouraged to leave."
But winning 20 games with the help of accommodating non-conference schedules sometimes provides nothing more than false security. Former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie won 22 games this past season but lost his job when the Wildcats failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Despite all the advantages of a strong schedule, Pearl admits he might have overscheduled this past season when his team had new players in key roles.
"But I won't change my scheduling philosophy," he said.
For a conference in need of a scheduling role model, that's worthy of applause.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.