The relationship between elite men's and women's coaches at the same university can be notoriously prickly—Exhibit A: UConn's Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma—but Pearl and Summitt have been friends from the moment he flew to Philadelphia to attend the Lady Vols' NCAA regional final the day after taking the job. "It's been awesome," says Summitt, who counts Pearl as the eighth men's coach during her 33 years in Knoxville. "He comes to our games, and I go to his games. I watch his practices, and he watches ours. We share." When Summitt lost Alexis Hornbuckle to a broken wrist before a game at Georgia two seasons ago, Summitt and Pearl met for an hour to discuss how to break full-court pressure without a point guard. And when Pearl decided to use more zone defense in preparation for the deeper three-point line in 2008--09, Summitt taught him the Lady Vols' matchup zone.
These days the two coaches even turn recruiting into a joint project, hosting prospective Vols at Summitt's house for dinner on their official visits. Yet nothing has done more to reveal Summitt's human side than her riposte to Pearl's body-paint adventure: She dressed up as a cheerleader (replete with a feather boa) and sang Rocky Top at a men's game last February. "I have never been so nervous before a basketball game in my life," Summitt says, her steely demeanor dissolving amid giggles. "The response was amazing. People thought it was just neat that Bruce and I are so committed to helping each other."
"It bothered Pat a great deal that it was being said you couldn't win at men's basketball here as long as Pat Summitt was coaching the women," Pearl says. "It just wasn't true. I'm proud that when you look at the top four [men's and women's] basketball programs in the country, it's Duke, North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee. You can now put Tennessee in that group, and you couldn't before."
IN THE SPRING of 1986, soon after Pearl arrived at Iowa as the top assistant to coach Tom Davis, he paid a visit to the family of Hawkeyes swingman Bill Jones in Detroit. Davis's predecessor, George Raveling, had left Iowa to coach at USC, and Jones was ready to follow him. "He was gone," says Jones's older brother, Tony, who was there that day. With one hour to rerecruit Jones, the 26-year-old Pearl unleashed a tour de force, winning over Bill's mother, Christine, in particular. Bill Jones would stay at Iowa. After Pearl left, Christine turned to her family and smiled. "We looked through all the media guides, and we didn't know Coach Davis had a black coach on his staff," she said.
"Uh, Mom," Tony replied, "I don't think Coach Pearl is black."
"No, I think he is," she said. "He's black. Look at his hair and the way he talks."
Tony Jones never did convince his mother otherwise, even after he became Pearl's own top assistant. But Christine was hardly alone. Few people who meet Pearl are ever sure. Is he African-American? Italian? Greek? Eastern European? Welsh? "People think I'm either Greg Brady or Tom Jones," Pearl says. When Pearl went to the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis, a few dozen Hoosiers fans congratulated him on landing the Indiana job, mistaking him for Kelvin Sampson, a full-blooded Lumbee Indian. The ethnic confusion serves Pearl well, letting all his constituents—recruits, parents, fans—reach the same conclusion: No matter what he is, he's one of us. The message of inclusion works both ways. "Look how far we've come in this country when a Jewish man can be coaching in the Southeastern Conference," says Pearl. These days Tennessee basketball isn't just about full-court pressure and triple-digit point totals. It's the sight of sophomore forward Wayne Chism, a 6'9" African-American from Bolivar, Tenn., trading in his white hoops headband for a yarmulke at Leah Pearl's recent bat mitzvah. ("All the players were going around saying, 'Shalom, y'all,'" Pearl recalls.)
This fall Pearl plans to speak at Sunday-morning church services around Knoxville. It's no small achievement for a coach who grew up in the Boston area during a time of racial and ethnic tensions. "I had a very conservative Jewish upbringing," says Pearl, who spoke Yiddish with his grandparents and remembers tying on tefillin (a pair of small boxes containing fragments of scripture) with his paternal grandfather, Jack Pearlmutter, who left Austria in the 1920s, walking and hitchhiking to France and finally boarding a boat to America in Marseille.
Bruce's parents, Bernie and Barbara, legally changed their surname to Pearl shortly before Bruce was born. ("I was a trainee at a store, and the manager used to say, 'Hey, Pearl!'" says Bernie, a semiretired salesman. "Finally I said to hell with this and chopped it off.") The family moved to suburban Sharon, Mass., when Bruce was three, and he grew to excel at football, basketball and baseball while living in the shadow of old Schaefer Stadium in nearby Foxborough. During his freshman year at Sharon High, however, he tore the cartilage in his left knee playing football. Six surgeries later, his dream of following Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg into the Jewish athletic pantheon was over.
"It was a huge hit to my whole persona, my ego, everything," Pearl says. But it also sparked a transformation. He auditioned for the school play and landed a lead role. He ran for student office and won. How many people can say they were voted both class president and class clown? "I never would have done those things had I not lost my ability to be the star athlete," Pearl says. "It made me more tolerant of people's differences." And so, when he could have joined the other Jewish kids at Brandeis or Boston University, Pearl chose to attend one of the nation's most famous Jesuit schools.