Bernie Pearl still chokes up recalling the phone message Bruce left his parents on that fateful Saturday night. "He'd called earlier and said, 'I probably won't get the job, and I don't blame them—it's in Indiana [near Illinois],'" Bernie says. "Boy, we felt so bad for him. But when we came home that night there was a message. 'Mom, Dad: You know what? I got the job.'"
One of Pearl's first recruits was Stan Gouard, a slick forward from Danville, Ill., just 33 miles from the Illinois campus in Champaign. "I had friends tell me: Why Bruce Pearl? Why would you want to go play for a cheater?" says Gouard, now an assistant coach at Indiana State. "But then they'd meet him and change their minds. They liked the guy." Gouard would go on to win two Division II national player of the year awards, and in Pearl's third season at Southern Indiana his Screaming Eagles came back from an 18-point halftime deficit to win the D-II national title. Pearl moved to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2001, and Tennessee came calling in '05 after he led the Panthers on a breakout run to the NCAA tournament's round of 16. So much for coaching suicide.
Still, it's worth asking: How many other coaches would have caved in to all the threats and whispers and quit the business altogether? "Are you kidding?" says Pearl, who believes he's passed on his toughness to his players. "It's why [the Vols have] been down 22 twice and come back and won. There is no deficit that is too great for us not to come back and win. That which doesn't kill you will only make you stronger. The ability to handle adversity is a great separator in this life. I've faced adversity. I stared it down. I didn't care what people said, and it just made me stronger."
PEARL'S PROGRAM is a family affair: Steven is a walk-on redshirt freshman forward; Jacqui occasionally sings the national anthem at home games; Michael has been a ball boy. And his family is a program affair: Last month Pearl's players were among the first to learn that after 25 years of marriage, he had filed for divorce.
"Fellas, I talk the talk a lot, but I try and walk the walk," Pearl told the Vols in announcing the split. "I ask God to forgive me every single day because I fail him all the time, and I'm going to ask you to forgive me too."
Rare is the occasion when Pearl doesn't feel inadequate to some degree. It's a Jewish thing, he says. If his methods sometimes seem controversial or over-the-top, he says, at least he means well. "It's like when I go crazy on the bench [with the players]," he says. "Don't pay attention to how I'm delivering the message, pay attention to the message. Don't pay attention to the naked man painted orange, pay attention to the message of school spirit. Don't pay attention to the fact that I had to record a telephone conversation, pay attention to the message: Do what's right, even if it's unpopular."
Then again, his popularity in Knoxville isn't much up for debate. On a recent morning, Pearl and Summitt addressed more than 50 construction workers on the site of the school's soon-to-be-completed $16 million basketball practice facility. The two coaches signed hard hats and expressed their gratitude before Pearl took the microphone.
"Do you think we're goin' to get it done in a month?" he asked. "Because, listen up, if it's not done in a month, I don't want to be out here chewin' no butt! Because I promise you right now, you think this is bad? I'm tellin' you right now, you do not want to hear from Coach Summitt!"
Everyone laughed. Then Summitt took her turn. "When you work together, great things can happen," she concluded. "Bruce and I understand teamwork. It only took 33 years and Bruce Pearl to get a practice facility, and that's all right. Let's hear it for Bruce!"
The construction workers roared. Summitt raised the microphone in the gesture of a toast, and Bruce Pearl flashed a wide grin, the kind he usually reserves for a Bud Select and a Krispy Kreme.