There he goes again. Bruce Pearl's got his shirt off. It's Labor Day, 85° and sunny, and America's favorite bare-chested basketball coach is the picture of topless satisfaction in orange board shorts, black sunglasses and a white Gilligan hat as he pilots his 29-foot Sea Ray on Fort Loudoun Lake outside Knoxville. The small army onboard, a dozen strong—including Bruce's four children: Jacqui, 21; Steven, 20; Leah, 12; and Michael, 11—is enough to turn the Tennessee coach's rare day off into a five-hour-long Pearl jam.
"Work hard, play hard," Pearl announced while stockpiling provisions earlier, and he hardly disappoints. One minute he's dragging Leah and a friend on a tube, pulling them shriekingly close to a bloated dead catfish. ("What'd you think of that fish, honey?" "That was disgusting!") The next he's tending his grill, cooking hot dogs for the hungry masses. ("Hebrew National, baby. They're kosher!") And now, after tying up alongside some friends' boats in Party Cove, it's time to relax. As Soulja Boy's Crank That thumps on his monstrous eight-speaker stereo, the 47-year-old Pearl cannonballs off the customized deck, engulfing his guests in a low-grade tsunami.
Within seconds he's floating on a pink Styrofoam noodle, a cold Bud Select in one hand and a melting Krispy Kreme doughnut in the other. Bliss. "Man," Pearl says, taking a pull from his longneck, "does it get any better than this?"
If you're a long-suffering Tennessee men's basketball fan, the answer may just be yes. Two years after taking over one of the nation's most underachieving programs, Pearl has fashioned his Volunteers into this season's SEC favorite (sorry, Florida and Kentucky) and a threat to win the national title. That he has done so without a single McDonald's high school All-American is a testament to the power of his personality and his throwback full-court press. "Our style of play suits me because I'm a pain in the ass," Pearl says. "I'm annoying. But our fans love it, and the opposing fans don't. I always said I wanted to be the least popular coach in the SEC. I just had no idea I could do it in two years."
In an era in which uptight martinets stalk the sidelines, Pearl is also college basketball's clown prince, the 21st-century heir to the late Jim Valvano. As the preseason officially begins this weekend with Midnight Madness festivities on campuses across the country, ask yourself: How many Final Four--caliber coaches...
... take their players tubing on their pleasure craft? When he's not hosting the guys at his house on NFL Sundays, Pearl is hauling them out onto the lake. "He interacts with us," says sophomore forward Tyler Smith, a transfer from Iowa. "Every weekend he's like, 'Let's go on the boat. Come over to my house.'"
...regularly lift weights with their players? Pearl's bench-press max is 285 pounds—more than many of his Vols can handle. "The first time he came in and did that, I felt terrible," says Dane Bradshaw, last year's senior captain. "You're done with your set, and he starts adding 45-pound plates to each side and just killing it. You're like, Oh, God, nice first impression. This 45-year-old coach is outbenching me, and I've been working three summers on this."
... unabashedly bleed school spirit, standing on chairs in campus dining halls to promote upcoming games? Pearl has done this for years, but last January he took that support to a new level, trading his shirt for a coat of orange body paint and joining his players in the student section to cheer on the Lady Vols against Duke. "Who the hell is going to paint his body?" says Pearl's assistant Steve Forbes. "I come out of the tunnel and look up and go, That's my boss right there."
... 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.