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Oh Boy. There he goes again... (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday October 9, 2007 11:32AM; Updated: Thursday October 11, 2007 8:59AM
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Pearl is playful when he takes players out on his boat, but all business as soon as practice begins.
Pearl is playful when he takes players out on his boat, but all business as soon as practice begins.
Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography
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... take their players to a World War II concentration camp? Most teams visit Caribbean islands on their preseason trips abroad. Not Pearl's Vols, whose tour of Central Europe in August included lectures by a Tennessee history professor and a visit to the Terezin camp near Prague. The discussion topics: racism, anti-Semitism, mob mentality. How was the Holocaust allowed to happen? "Sometimes you're faced with a decision, and it may be difficult," says Pearl, the grandson of Jewish immigrants. "Make the right choice. Do it because it's the right thing. So often that's not what happens. People have gone along with the mob."

It's a lesson, Pearl hopes, that a player can apply to any number of scenarios: turning down drugs at a party, studying on a Thursday night, refusing to cheat on a test. Someday, maybe, the player might even choose to become a whistle-blower.

*****

Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, 6:27 a.m.: Yesterday's Labor Day boat ride is already a distant memory as all the Volunteers -- players, coaches, managers -- gather at the base of what they call the Hill, a 45-degree, 80-yard-long concrete ramp from hell. In the predawn light a blanket of fog hangs over the nearby Tennessee River. Once a week the Vols meet at gate 10 to perform a diabolical chore, sprinting up the Hill as many as 26 times in 26 minutes. Pearl stands halfway up the incline, hands on hips, clapping during the final sprints like a maniacal drill sergeant. "Second-half defense!" he screams, a reminder of his team's collapse against Ohio State in last spring's NCAA South Region semifinals, in which Tennessee squandered a 20-point lead to lose 85-84. "Let's think about it right now! Right now!"

On this day, for a change, nobody vomits at the end. As the players bend over gasping for breath, Pearl paces in front of them. "Where's Florida this morning?" he asks.

"In bed," they reply.

"Where's Kentucky this morning?"

"In bed."

"All right now, on three."

"One, two, three. Team!"

That Pearl sometimes appears to be auditioning for a role in a sequel to Old School doesn't mean Knoxville has become Camp Cupcake. "There's something about him that's borderline crazy, but in a good way," says sophomore forward Duke Crews. "If practice starts at 2:45, he's laughing and joking with you at 2:44. But at 2:45 he gets intense" -- Crews snaps his fingers -- "and he expects us to do the same. The first time it happened, it kind of had me mixed up."

Work hard, play hard. It helps explain why Pearl reached 300 wins faster than any other active coach except North Carolina's Roy Williams. Or why Tennessee went 3-1 over the last two seasons against the Florida team that won consecutive national titles. Or why the average attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena rose from 12,225 in 2004-05, the season before Pearl arrived, to 19,661 (fourth in the nation) last season.

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