- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
We know it's football season at Tennessee. In fact, it's Florida week, so writing about hoops right now might not make sense in Volunteer Nation.
But the reality is, Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl has been hard to ignore since he arrived from Wisconsin-Milwaukee after a seemingly improbable Sweet 16 run this past March -- and Vols fans are noticing.
"The talk shows, chat rooms and donors are calling about basketball," Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said. "The people I interface with, donors and so forth, are always interested in Tennessee football but Bruce, in advance of the first game, has done a great job of getting out there. This is our sixth coach in the last 15 years and people are dying to win in basketball. ... We've had occasional success but Bruce has given folks reason and hope that he can be the guy to get us where we can go."
In the process of trying to get there, Pearl has created and grabbed his share of headlines.
The biggest ongoing story concerns Pearl's not releasing top Class of 2005 recruit Tyler Smith, of Pulaski, Tenn., who had signed with former coach Buzz Peterson. Pearl had some concerns about Smith's recruitment when visiting Smith and his family, after replacing Peterson.
"There some things in the recruiting process that were of concern to me and I reported them back to the AD, and as a result he was looking into it," said Pearl, who was once famously known for reporting to the NCAA on potential violations at rival Illinois when he was an assistant under Dr. Tom Davis at Iowa. "We felt like that was the proper institutional control thing to do."
Hamilton said Pearl didn't feel comfortable when he went into the Smith home and didn't think he received a fair shake.
"[Pearl] felt like there were too many hands in the pile, messing with the recruitment process," Hamilton said.
Hamilton added that Tennessee has a history of not releasing students who sign a national letter of intent.
"We stood by [Pearl], had an investigation into the process and we're reaching a conclusion,'' Hamilton said.
Peterson, the new coach at Coastal Carolina, said he talked to Smith's father, Billy, who said that once Peterson left, Tyler wasn't going to go to Tennessee. Peterson said he hasn't spoken to Smith since he left Tennessee.
Peterson said he didn't commit any violations in recruiting Smith and hasn't had any violations on his record at Appalachian State, Tulsa or Tennessee. Peterson said he did speak to Tennessee's legal department earlier in the summer, but didn't expect anything to come out of it.
Smith is at Hargrave Military Academy (Va.) and, now that class has started at Tennessee, will be back out on the open market for the class of 2006.
Beyond the Smith saga, Pearl's been busy this summer:
• A one-time UWM signee, Anthony Passley, transferred to Tennessee, and will sit out the year.
• Pearl pushed to have 200 seats removed from behind one basket so students can stand the entire game, a move that won't be done for the women's basketball team, per its own request.
• Just in the last month, senior Jereme Hendrix was suspended indefinitely after being arrested on a drug charge in Georgia, and a simple sign on the locker room door announcing a recruit on an unofficial visit was deemed a secondary violation.
Additionally, Pearl has snagged two major commitments in the class of 2006 -- 6-foot-8 Wayne Chism out of Bolivar, Tenn., and 6-5 Marques Johnson out of Fort Wayne, Ind., -- and even has a commitment out of Cordell Passley from Pike High in Indianapolis in the class of 2008. Pearl also is a finalist for point guard Willie Kemp of Bolivar Christian Academy in Bolivar, Tenn., for the class of 2006.
Eventful? What else would you expect from the bombastic and always-on-the-go Pearl, who once donned the Boston College Eagle mascot uniform to help out a fellow student when he was a manager under Davis.
Oh, did we mention that whenever Pearl is in Knoxville, he'll make sure he's in the weight room lifting with his players and on the court during individual workouts instilling his style of up-tempo, pressing ball?
"The buzz on campus wasn't about basketball the last few years," Tennessee senior Stanley Asumnu said. "But he's getting the student body excited. The school wants to see us win and if we do that, we'll put students and fans in the arena."
It's hard to blame the environment at Thompson-Boling, but Pearl wants to change the atmosphere.
"We lost an entire generation of fans over the last 15 years,'' Hamilton said. "We haven't been able to get them excited. Bruce's style of play will have them wanting to watch it and his personality helps too.''
Hamilton said Pearl called the head of the student support group, Orange Nation, this summer when the two were touring the facility. He wanted to make sure the students would be cool with moving them down to the court, but taking out the seats and forcing them to stand the whole game.
"[The students] see him as reaching out to them," Hamilton said. "When the arena was first built, there were permanent seat licenses but we need to work around that and we're bringing students down to the court. There was too much separation from the seating bowl to the court."
Will this translate into a postseason berth this season? Maybe not. The Vols will be lucky to be above .500 in the SEC. Sure, they've got 18 of 27 games at home, but the talent isn't in place to be running, trapping and pressing the whole season.
"They [still] want to walk from point A to point B, but I want them to run," Pearl said.
Tennessee's early success might hinge on junior center Major Wingate, senior guard C.J. Watson and sophomore guard Chris Lofton, who have picked up the nuances of Pearl's system more quickly than others, according to Pearl.
"My goal is to keep the momentum going, bring a different style to the SEC," Pearl said. "We can be competitive and next year we'll be really young. It's not going to be overnight at Tennessee. At Milwaukee, I inherited a team with no seniors [from Bo Ryan] and we went to the tournament in my second year. This roster isn't built to do that yet."
Regardless, Pearl isn't going to be off in a quiet corner going about his business. He already has made significant noise in Knoxville and it doesn't appear he'll be piping down anytime soon.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
8dESPN The Magazine