Embattled Tennessee Volunteers men's basketball head coach Bruce Pearl showed his mettle Thanksgiving weekend, outcoaching Jay Wright and his seventh-ranked Villanova Wildcats in New York City's Madison Square Garden, thereby winning the 2010 NIT Season Tip-Off Title. Once again, as he has done many times in his career, Pearl proved by a double-digit margin that he can coach up a team to play in the top echelon nationally.
Pearl's Vols were motivated to win for him. He had just been suspended for eight games by Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive for lying to NCAA investigators prior to this road trip. Bruce kept his team focused on its business in the face of very distressing and distracting news swirling around the program.
Once upon a time, when Tennessee was looking to replace Jerry Green as its basketball coach in 2001, former UT star Ernie Grunfeld, one of my classmates on The Hill in the 1970s, recommended to then-athletics director Doug Dickey that he hire Jay Wright, who was then at Hofstra but who took the Villanova job that same year, as UT's coach. Instead, Dickey hired Buzz Peterson.
Four years later, when Mike Hamilton took over as UT's AD, he turned to Grunfeld for a recommendation on who to hire to replace Peterson in 2005. Ernie recommended his old friend Bruce Pearl, whom he had met when Grunfeld was managing the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and Pearl was coaching at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This time, Ernie's recommendation was taken and heeded.
Skylar McBee, who grew up on dairy farm in rural Grainger County just northeast of Knoxville, as far away from New York City as you can get both culturally and geographically nationally, hit a three-pointer from the NBA line the New York Knicks use in the Garden to put his Vols up by eight points down the stretch. That was enough to put the game away.
Pearl's team proved that they had their coach's back, just as he has had theirs throughout his career. They turned in an inspired performance to upset one of college basketball's best teams.
Tennessee held Villanova's vaunted trio of guards, who had scored 61 points combined on UCLA a couple of days earlier, to only 25 points total, and all three of them fouled out of the game, proving once again that defense wins games and championships.
As the calendar turns to 2011, Pearl faces an eight-game suspension imposed by the SEC. That will include four home games against conference rivals Florida, Vanderbilt, LSU and Alabama. The Big Orange Nation will turn out in force and fill Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville with some of its loudest crowds ever. They will be cheering to help out their head coach, who will be banned from the facility during the game.
Pearl has made men's basketball relevant again on The Hill. He took the Volunteers to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history last season. There are signs that this team, with him outcoaching his peers, could repeat that feat.
Pearl has resurrected a program that had been on the decline since my college days when legendary Hall of Fame coach Ray Mears roamed the sidelines of a packed Stokely Athletic Center four decades ago, winning SEC championships in the Ernie & Bernie era. He has shown respect to tradition by wearing the Big Orange blazer that Mears wore for big games and that the Big Orange TipOff Club, the school's primary basketball booster group, has made popular again. Perhaps associate coach Tony Jones, who will replace Pearl during those eight games, will also wear the blazer against arch-rival Vanderbilt in Knoxville, as Pearl would have done.
The University of Tennessee, like the lyrics of an iconic country music song that was born in the state, is "standing by their man," putting the world on notice that despite monetary sanctions the school put on its own coach, despite the SEC's suspension of him for game and despite whatever penalties the NCAA may levy in terms of probation, scholarship reductions or otherwise, they want Bruce Pearl to continue as the coach of the Volunteers. He wins games, wins championships, makes millions for the athletic budget and the economy and tirelessly promotes the game and the school nationally.
As long as Pearl keeps outcoaching his peers like he did yesterday, he will be remembered not just as the coach whose character is on trial, as he admitted to the New York media earlier this week, but also for the fact that he outhustles and outsmarts his opponents. A team is a reflection of a coach's personality, and this Big Orange team certainly is outworking better teams as they move up the ladder nationally.