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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?"
"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.
Pearl's quick fix in Knoxville has already become the template for impatient fans and athletic directors around the country. First he won over his players, installing a freewheeling offense that produced an average of 80.6 points per game and a record of 46--19 over the past two seasons, compared to 29--31 the two seasons before he arrived. ("If you don't enjoy playing pickup basketball, there's something wrong with you," says senior guard Chris Lofton, a national player of the year candidate.) Then Pearl won over the fans. They loved the full-court press, loved the coach's sweat-soaked sherbet-orange sport coats, loved the new fan-friendly gimmicks at home games. (The Vols sometimes run through the crowd during introductions, and they may shake hands with fans as they depart the arena.) And, not least, Pearl won over Pat Summitt, the Tennessee women's coach, whom he calls "the greatest college basketball coach of all time."