At a place where Buzzball backfired, Jerry Green gave way and Wade Houston was in over his head, Bruce Pearl was a gem. He filled Tennessee's gym, and filled the Big Orange faithful with a renewed vigor for Volunteer hoops.
Pearl led the basketball Vols into an era of unparalleled success and unmatched enthusiasm. He took over a program mired in mediocrity and made it elite. Last year's tournament run may have been the summit of his success, but it was hardly his only accomplishment on Rocky Top.
Pearl led the Vols to six NCAA Tournaments in six seasons. He was the second-fastest active coach to win 400 games. And he graduated every player who stayed in his program for four years.
Only four schools in the nation had better attendance during Pearl's tenure. And maybe that represents Bruce's biggest breakthrough. His charisma quickly won over a football-crazy fan base and awoke a program that had lain dormant since the days of Ray Mears.
When Vol fans look back on Pearl's time at Tennessee, they won't remember the numbers. They'll remember the moments. Like Chris Lofton's famous fadeaway to beat Texas; the magical night in Memphis that briefly put the Vols atop the basketball world; and, of course, the win over Ohio State that sent the Vols to the Elite Eight for the first time ever.
Pearl's appeal came in his style, both on and off the court. His team's intensity was electric -- the fast-paced, full-court, fastbreak frenzy confounding opponents and thrilling fans. Off the court, Pearl never refused a chance to promote the program, showing up on national TV, in nursing homes, and everywhere in between. The nation took notice. But that scrutiny would ultimately come with a price.
Maybe it was pride. Maybe it was ignorance. We'll never know why Bruce broke NCAA rules, then lied about it. But in September, a charismatic coach became a controversial one. Pearl's lapse in judgment became front-page news and caused a firestorm of criticism. One of Pearl's favorite sayings was that adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it. And adversity is exactly what the team had to deal with this year. For the first time in six years, the Vols failed to win 20 games, falling to Michigan in a first-round tournament blowout. The on-court struggles were perhaps influenced by the coach's off-court ordeal.
And now comes the end of Pearl's time at Tennessee. The coach who pioneered the OUTLIVE campaign was unable to outlast his NCAA troubles. It's a bitter end to a sweet six seasons.
And as Bruce walks out the Big Orange backdoor, Vol fans can only hope that the sleeping giant he awoke won't fall back into slumber now that he is gone.
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