There was a time in the SEC that basketball coaches were controversial figures. One need not stretch too far into the past to find a Wimp Sanderson, Sonny Smith, Dale Brown or Nolan Richardson that could get opposing crowds riled up and give fans a lightning rod to focus on before a game. But in recent years this simply hasnt been the case. Quick, give me something to hate about Jeff Lebo….how about John Pelphrey….any good barbs you can throw at Kevin Stallings? Nowadays, the coaches are all boring and give you nothing to focus on except the smell of the cheating coming from Starkville and Baton Rouge. Even the best coach in the conference in recent years, Billy Donovan, is actually kind of likeable and besides calling him Eddie Munster, there is nothing really to say that is inflammatory.
However there is once exception to the blandness of the SEC top dogs….and that is the Lou Ferrigno-look alike in Knoxville. Whether he is painting his chest, wearing an orange coat or cavorting on boats with hot 20-somethings, Bruce Pearl is a man who can illicit some emotions. He is an infusion of character that the SEC sorely needs and that has put Tennessee on the national map, both on and off the court. I mean, when was the last time you saw Don Devoe on a show like PTI? Can you imagine the folks at ESPN debating the worthiness of Kevin O Neill to paint his chest at a women’s game? Pearl is a master showman, who has given Tennessee the men’s basketball appeal that they have never had. And oh yeah, he is winning a bit too, making the Vols the class of the SEC this year.
So do we like Bruce or hate him? He famously made a barb about coaching in Southern Indiana being difficult because it was too close to Kentucky and many Cat fans have begun ranking him next to Pitino and Coach K on the dislike scale. Whenever a coach is disliked, the word “classy” inevitably comes in and many believe that Bruce Pearl is anything but that ubiquitous adjective. Pearl is a great recruiter, but is brutal on the trail and the whispers are all over the place that he engages in negative recruiting (pointing out the faults of the other programs) more than any other coach….something of a no-no on the trail. And then of course there was the day in Rupp Arena, where he beat the Cats and then proceeded to rip his shirt off and stomp around yelling in the locker room….a natural expression of emotion, but one that riled up some in the Big Blue Nation.
I for one like Pearl and what he represents. He is a personality in a sport that is too often dour and showing a lack of enjoyment and fun. He is a great quote and has a huge amount of respect for the Kentucky basketball program. While I still root against the Big Orange more than any other program not named Duke, I like that the Vols are better and raising the tide in the SEC….this year it needs it and a future UK/UT Top 10 rivalry will be good for both programs. But that doesnt mean I dont want to see Pearl get his….early and often. His smugness needs a taking down….preferably tonight. Yes, I give props to Bruce where he deserves it and still wonder if he got these young ladies he is hugging before. But like all great enemies, I want him beaten badly….something that hopefully will happen tonight.