Interview: Tennessee's Bruce Pearl is a real gem

NCAA basketball's star coach is as proud of his Jewish heritage as his top-ranked Vols.

bruce pearl 88 (photo credit:)
bruce pearl 88
(photo credit: )
March has officially arrived. Can't you just smell the madness in the air? The annual phenomenon that grips the international sports psyche from the first week of March through the first week of April, sending fans into a synchronized frenzy, is once again upon us. "March Madness" is the moniker given to the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. The mere mention of the phrase sends tingles of the CBS theme song and the voices of Dickie Vitale and Billy Packer down the backs of millions of sports fans. At the basic level, the winner of the tournament determines the year's national champions of college basketball. However, more than just the concentrated hype of 65 teams vying for their sport's biggest prize, it's the buzzer-beating baskets, dramatic underdog, or Cinderella, stories, the kitschy alliterated handles such as "sweet sixteen", "elite eight" or "final four", and, of course, the "office pools" attracting expert fans and novices alike, that have given credence to the event's affectionate nickname. This year Israelis and Jews have a duck in the race, and, my, what an interesting duck he is. To call Bruce Pearl, the Jewish coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers men's basketball team, a little atypical as NCAA coaches go would be like categorizing the steroid problem in baseball as "a small vitamin misunderstanding". The charismatic coach is known for wearing a hat bearing the Star of David to Tennessee post-game press-conferences and introducing himself at various speaking engagements for Jewish causes as Mordechai Shmuel ben Moshe Dov. But Pearl is no gimmick. Last weekend, a win over state arch-rival and previously undefeated Memphis vaulted the Vols (25-3) into the No. 1 ranking in the US college nation for the first time in the school's 215-year history. During one of the most hectic weeks of his professional career, Coach Pearl made time to speak to the Jerusalem Post. "I am Jewish and I am more proud of that than anything else in my life" the coach states emphatically at the outset. The second-fastest active coach to reach the 300 career win milestone, Pearl has posted a 384-106 record in his 16th year as a head coach. His .784 career winning percentage ranks third among active coaches and he has led his teams to 14 postseason appearances, including a 1995 NCAA Division II national championship while at Southern Indiana. Six times he has earned conference coach-of-the-year honors and two times (1995 and 2006) he was named the national coach of the year. Pearl's teams have led their conference in scoring in all but one season that he has been a head coach. Tennessee is leading the Southeastern Conference for the third consecutive year under his leadership, averaging more than 80 points per game. The key to his success: "Raise the expectations for yourself and what your goals are… think high." That, along with Pearl's personal credo of "Work hard and play hard." "I was never the best player as a kid and I am definitely not the best coach, so for better or worse, I am a tireless worker… and put everything I've got into my job," he says, humbly. Pearl was just recently named coach of the Maccabi USA Basketball and will lead the team to Israel for the 2009 Maccabiah Games. "The opportunity to coach in the Maccabiah Games is a dream come true." he gushes, "To represent the United States in international competition in a place that is the Jewish homeland is very special." Pearl grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Massachusetts and remembers speaking Yiddish with his grandparents and putting on tefillin with his paternal grandfather Jack Pearlmutter, an Austrian immigrant. (His parents shortened the family name to Pearl shortly before Bruce was born.) This past August, when some teams were visiting Caribbean island hot-spots on their preseason trips abroad, Coach Pearl took his Vols on a tour of Central Europe, which included a visit to the Terezin concentration camp near Prague. The discussion topics: Racism, anti-Semitism, mob mentality. How the Holocaust was allowed to happen. "Sometimes you're faced with a decision, and it may be difficult," reflects Pearl on the benefits of the team-bonding experience. "Make the right choice. Do it because it's the right thing. So often that's not what happens and people have gone along with the mob." Speaking of the challenges he faced growing up in the predominantly non-Jewish American sports culture, Pearl considers: "It was difficult as an athlete to sit in stadiums or arenas listening to the prayer before the game and talking about [their G-d] and asking him to watch over us and keep us safe and healthy… I was left out of that." On a more humorous note the coach recounts, "I was sometimes a bit nervous about not knowing when to tell people that I was Jewish. They'd ask 'Are you Jewish?' and I would reply 'Yeah, I'm Israeli, wanna screw with me?" "You shoulda' seen them run!" he laughs. A big supporter of KJA Jewish summer camps in the Knoxville area near the university, as well as being very involved with the Hillel Student group on campus, Pearl views his role as a basketball coach, even in a high-profile public position, with a startling realism with reference to his eternal homeland. "My whole deal is to win or lose basketball games, win advance on, lose go home, that's really it. With those who do work to build [Israel], they are saving Jewish lives, they are helping both the nation and State of Israel emotionally, financially and politically," he remarks, insightfully. "In the big picture, If I lose a game, so what! But if we, the Jewish people, lose this fight or we lose the battle… there is a lot more at stake." Asked about potential recruiting trips to Israel to scout for local basketball talent, Pearl posits that, "While for the time being, I have nothing on the horizon, hopefully with the global direction the game is going in, Israel can be at the forefront of the next push of talent-developing regions that feed into our marketplace." For the time being, however, the task at hand for Coach Pearl is guiding his Volunteers, led by senior guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, past three difficult games against conference rivals Kentucky, defending national-champions Florida, and South Carolina to end their regular season. Then comes the SEC tournament, leading into Selection Sunday on March 16 in which Tennessee is expected to garner a coveted #1 seed in the NCAA tournament brackets. "I think toughness that's built and confidence that comes from winning close games and winning in tough places is key for us, either finding ways to win or, at least, finding less ways to lose," Pearl quips, "Every game going forward is going to be exceedingly tougher." Understanding all too well the need for his team to keep their optimism and excitement in check, even, or some might say especially, after reaching the pinnacle of the national polls with their current #1 ranking, Pearl cautiously maintains: "We're not celebrating anything yet, and we're not going to. We still have a long way to go." It's a little like the sentiments Pearl expressed recently during what was dubbed "Menorah Madness" at the local Knoxville JCC on the last night of Hanukkah in December when he was asked to light the communal candles. "It's a bit of an honor," the coach deadpanned, "just not the same kind of honor as being called up to read from the Torah." Ever the consummate Jewish warrior and well-traveled coach, Bruce Pearl realizes that, while he may have his team on top of the college basketball world today, he cannot yet stop and smell the roses. For the ultimate goal is still a few steps away, lying beyond the insanity that is "March Madness".