Dec. 20, 2005
Down at Tennessee, they have found the right guy! After many years of struggling to find someone to bring basketball excitement to the men's game similar to Pat Summitt's efforts on the women's side, the Vols are in good shape. Bruce Pearl has already brought some electricity to generate big-time interest and now he's wheeling his magic on the Knoxville campus.
Tennessee's men's basketball team has been dominated in the headlines by both women's basketball and football. Summitt has done one of the greatest coaching jobs in all of sports. The question is, can Pearl build on that incredible road win at Texas? Tennessee's last appearance in the NCAA tournament was 2001. The Vols last generated a real buzz in 2000, reaching the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina. Tennessee has never made it to the Final Four.
It was more than a win in Austin last weekend, it was blowout city. Pearl has done a remarkable job utilizing the backcourt skills of C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton. Coming into the game against the Longhorns, there was the question of performing against quality competition.
Not only was Tennessee facing a team ranked as high as No. 2 before the debacle against Duke, the belief was that Texas was an angry and hungry basketball squad. The Longhorns were embarrassed and humiliated on national television as J.J. Redick lit them up for 41 points. You can make excuses for Texas as Brad Buckman was out and Daniel Gibson suffered a concussion early, but the bottom line is Tennessee was brilliant.
It doesn't shock me that the Vols have started off terrifically. Pearl's star would have risen a lot sooner if it wasn't for the controversy at Iowa over Deon Thomas' recruitment to Illinois. Pearl tried to get the player to admit Illini assistant Jimmy Collins offered him extra benefits. Pearl has maintained that he was only following orders from the NCAA and his school when he recorded a telephone conversation he had with Thomas in 1989.
He had to work his way back up the coaching ladder, winning at Southern Indiana (231-46 in nine seasons, including a Division II championship in 1995) before getting a chance at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (86-38 in four seasons). Last season he led UWM to the Sweet 16 with upset wins over Alabama and Boston College. Then the phone rang with the offer to take over at Tennessee. So far, so good!
The Vols have a dandy coach to get excited about. The only problem is, with a building that holds more than 24,000, and fan support around 15,000, it looks empty. Tennessee should build a facility which holds 16,000 and make tickets a hot commodity.
Right now the Vols are a hot commodity in the SEC. The next challenge is Thursday against Eddie Sutton's Oklahoma State squad in Oklahoma City. JamesOn Curry has warmed up, scoring 30 points over the weekend. It will be another test for Pearl, who has passed his early exam in Knoxville this season.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.