Fans react to Tennessee's firing of coach Bruce Pearl
Vol Hoops 2010-2011: Out-Dribbled by Distraction and Disappointment
Bruce Pearl had just been hired as Tennessee's men's basketball coach when I met him in Philadelphia, where the Lady Vols were playing in an NCAA regional in March 2005.
Aware of his pace in the previous few days, I said, "Looks like you've been on a fast break."
"I live on a fast break," he said, smiling.
Most of his teams played that way, too. They kept pressing on the accelerator in pursuit of the basket or the ball while their coach burned almost as many calories at courtside.
And he didn't care if you saw him sweat.
Remember that night at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., when you wondered if he might drown in his own perspiration? The national television audience was more concerned about what was going on with Pearl's body than the coach was. He was too immersed in the job at hand.
You didn't have to see him on game night to appreciate that.
I remember talking to a UT professor during a December afternoon practice in Pearl's first season before the coach had revived a beleaguered program or captivated the Big Orange fan base. The professor said he occasionally attended practices because he was so impressed with Pearl as a teacher.
Pearl won over just about everyone - faculty, students, longtime fans and new ones - in his six-year revival of UT basketball. The era ended traumatically Monday when one of the most popular coaches in school history was told he had been fired for his role in NCAA violations.
The outcome wouldn't have been so painful for UT fans if Pearl had just been successful or just been likable.
His predecessor, Buzz Peterson, was likable. But he didn't win. Before Peterson, Jerry Green won but didn't win over fans.
Pearl did both. And he did it with a flair and passion that rarely waned.
He also did it with a sense of history. Pearl embraced UT traditions at the same time he was revitalizing the program with a fresh approach and a new burst of energy.
Almost everyone knows that he wore the orange blazer for rivalry games with Vanderbilt and Kentucky as a tribute to legendary UT basketball coach Ray Mears. But you might have forgotten that when Mears died, Pearl's players and staff attended the memorial service as a team.
Pearl and Mears saw their job the same way. They realized it extended beyond strategy and recruiting; that it was as much about promoting as coaching, as much about the fans as the players.
Mears coined the term, "Big Orange Country." Pearl plopped down in the middle of the Big Orange student body with his bare chest ablaze in orange paint for a nationally televised Lady Vols game.
He didn't need an audience to show his colors.
While once walking past a thicket of fans outside Sanford Stadium before a UT-Georgia kickoff, I noticed a familiar face in the crowd. Pearl was just another UT fan on an SEC Saturday night, and the native New Englander looked right at home.
That transition explains, in part, why most UT fans can so readily forgive his NCAA transgressions. That's also why his departure is so agonizing.
Pearl didn't just resurrect their basketball program. He became one of them.
And he did it in fast-break time.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org