Tennessee coach: 'We're 40 minutes away from being No. 1'
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Bruce Pearl is a showman and a coach with a bit of tent revival preacher thrown in for good measure. So with tipoff against the nation's top-ranked team less than two hours away, he held a pep rally with Tennessee fans.
And Pearl promised history.
"All I can tell you is we're 40 minutes away from being No. 1," Pearl said after high-fiving fans packed into the private room of a sports restaurant a couple blocks away from the FedExForum.
Big words from the coach of a program that never has been ranked first, at least not in men's basketball.
Women's basketball, football? Sure.
Then Pearl and his Volunteers delivered, stunning top-ranked Memphis 66-62 Saturday night.
Now the Volunteers (25-2), whose No. 2 ranking had been the highest in school history have something else to remember in their first ever No. 1 vs No. 2 matchup, the 38th all-time and only the fifth featuring teams from the same state.
They improved to 3-10 all-time against No. 1 teams with first victory over a top-ranked team since way back on Dec. 2, 1969, against South Carolina.
Now they can go back to their next goal this season for the Volunteers -- their first outright Southeastern Conference championship in 41 years.
It was a lot to take in for Tennessee fans, who sat on the tops of booths for Pearl's pep rally and filled every inch of space even with security trying to keep tabs on the crowd. For Pearl, it was part of a logical progression from when a crowd of 22,000 watched his first Tennessee game less than three seasons ago.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Pearl said.
The pep rally was part of a viewing party organized by Memphis-area alumni from the University of Tennessee, but this wasn't the first time Pearl has done this.
He met with fans before tipoff against Tennessee two seasons ago, part of how he works to build support from one end of the Volunteer State down to the western tip here 390 miles away from home in Memphis.
Don Corey, a 1970 graduate of Tennessee and now an educator in Shelby County, said he was at the event two years ago when only 50 people met with Pearl. He was waiting to listen to Pearl in a crowd of about 300 Saturday before heading over with six others to buy tickets, even if he had to wait until after tipoff.
"It's unbelievable. He's unbelievable," Corey said of Pearl's charisma and friendliness with fans. "He acts that way all the time."
Pearl has ulterior motives.
He targeted Memphis' rich high school basketball pool almost as soon as he was hired. He lost Willie Kemp to Memphis coach John Calipari and most recently watched Elliot Williams commit to Duke last November over both Tennessee and the Tigers.
The Tennessee coach did land Memphis native J.P. Prince when the guard decided to leave Arizona midway through his freshman season, even though Prince's father, John, was an assistant at Memphis in the mid-1990s under then-coach Larry Finch.
Pearl also signed Vols sophomore Wayne Chism from Jackson -- an hour east of Memphis.
And he can work fans into a frenzy with the best, leading the crowd in a chant before talking about how ready his Vols were for what he said would be their toughest game on the road to the Final Four -- which would be another first in Tennessee history.
Pearl told the lucky fans who had tickets to cheer loudly for the Vols. He left after spending less than three minutes in the room, then left with an escort to head over to the FedExForum.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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