commentary (2006-12)

Is Bruce Pearl the guy? Maybe so. UT’s betting he is

A Basketball Tradition?

by Barry Henderson

Basketball’s a funny game. Sort of like team golf, but with defense. The object may be to put the ball in the hole, but there are people trying to keep that from happening. It has its frustrations along with its elations, and winning isn’t the only thing. Knowing you could have won is a big palliative to losses.

I practiced that cursed, lovely game every day for years as a youngster growing up in Indiana, where crowds in high school gyms rivaled those in college fieldhouses to witness the playing out of community rivalries on polished hardwood. I knew it then as a reason for being. It’s less than that, thankfully, nowadays. But, except for the NBA, it’s still fun to watch.

It’s become an undeniably popular pastime that has broadened its appeal steadily across America. If it plays second fiddle to football in some states, like Tennessee, Nebraska and Ohio, it still commands a strong role in interscholastic and intercollegiate sports programs, and it’s still No. 1 in Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina and a few other locales.

The Lady Vols and Pat Summitt may have given the game its panache in post-Ray Mears years at the University of Tennessee, but Bruce Pearl shows signs of elevating the men’s game and its following here to the Mears level or beyond.

Pearl took his first-year team to the SEC East title and the NCAA tournament, where the Vols were accorded a No. 2 seed. Though they lost their second game in the tourney, the fans stayed behind them, praising their accomplishments rather than dwelling on their loss, and taking a wait-’til-next-year approach that hasn’t been evident around UT basketball for decades.

But, even with Pearl’s personal and professional appeal, his intensity, and his perspiration, UT basketball is a long way from becoming a marquee program. What that takes is tradition, and even Mears’ great successes in 15 years as the Vols’ coach couldn’t establish that kind of trad.

When you know UT basketball has arrived among the nation’s best programs is when people in New York and L.A. are at least mildly startled when the Vols don’t reach the Sweet 16.

That’s true of dynasties or recent-past dynasties such as Duke and North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan State, UCLA, Arkansas, and even Georgetown.

Recruiting of top-tier basketball players to such schools is a walk in the park compared to bringing the best to play at UT, regardless of a state’s talent base among its high schools. That base will build, though, with a state university’s growing tradition. It could happen here.

Bruce Pearl’s obvious intensity and coaching ability will get him a good recruiting class or two, or more if the 20-plus-winning seasons continue. Still, it will take something like the flamboyant Mears’ 15-year run of defeating Kentucky at least once a year and going on to post-season successes to give Tennessee the reputation it needs to get some of the country’s basketball hosses to want to walk on here, rather than take a scholarship to Virginia Tech or someplace like that.

Certainly Pearl has the flamboyance and the dedication to do that, if he stays. And UT has boosted his pay above the million-dollar mark to reduce any temptation he might feel to bolt to another school. Certainly he will have the opportunities, and he probably already has them. Lucky for this state university, he seems sincerely happy to be here and devoted to building the program for a good while.

The other solid reason for boosting Pearl’s compensation is that he’s already earned a good chunk of it, increasing attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena by an average of nearly 5,000 heads per home game. That ain’t hay, folks, that’s revenue.

The UT sports hierarchy hopes that attendance, well above 17,000 per, will keep on growing and won’t be eroded by a losing season anytime soon. But this is Tennessee, where winning is everything at the gate, except in football, of course.

Even Summitt couldn’t take a couple of losing seasons and hope to see the Lady Vols’ faithful keep bringing in that faith through the turnstiles. Of course, she won’t have to. She has the kind of tradition that most men’s basketball programs dream of. She ought to be getting a million-plus in salary, too, but she’s been too much of a lady and too loyal to UT to sniff out a couple of offers that she might hint were too good to turn down, forcing the university’s hand. She really shouldn’t be above that kind of manipulation in the world of business that is college sports, but she has been.

As for the boys, at the end of this spectacular turnaround season, Summitt’s male counterpart hasn’t had to hint at anything. UT recognizes the potential that he carries with him as a coach, and acts accordingly.

I’d be willing to lay a beer bet that, if he chooses to stay for the duration of his contract and through a couple more extensions, and if he stays healthy despite the stress he puts himself under, UT men’s basketball will be a program to reckon with—almost rising to the Lady Vol level, before he leaves for another “challenge.” Six-pack on it?