Bruce Pearl is not getting any younger.
In fact, the University of Tennessee basketball coach will turn 50 on the first day of this season's NCAA basketball tournament.
Many men, as they approach such a landmark birthday, would be looking for a fountain of youth right about now.
Pearl is doing exactly that, only it has nothing to do with him personally. Anyone who has seen him with his shirt off at a UT women's basketball game in 2007 or rapping at an athletics awards ceremony earlier this year understands the inner child is alive and well within him.
Instead, in his fifth season in Knoxville, Pearl remains fiercely dedicated to what he considers "the rejuvenation of Tennessee basketball."
"I think if you feel like you've accomplished it, then you're done with it," he says. "I still feel like with every year we stay competitive—and when I say 'stay competitive,' I mean stay competitive with the best teams in the conference and compete for championships—the more we get to say the program is rejuvenated.
"You don't do that by doing it once or twice or three times or four times. You do it five times and you maintain a consistently competitive program, and that's what I'm trying to do, what we're trying to do. If we can do it, then we'll take great pride in it."
The Volunteers have advanced to the NCAA tournament each of the first four years—and twice reached the Sweet 16—under Pearl. Three times they have won the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, once they finished with the best overall record in the league and once—for the first time in program history—they were ranked No. 1 in the country.
People certainly have noticed. Attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena has increased by an average of more than 8,000 per game during his tenure, and each of the last four years UT has ranked among the top five nationally in attendance.
Yet there are other places where Volunteers fans can see their team play.
"As I've said many times, it's Big Orange country throughout the state of Tennessee," Pearl says. "For us to be able to take the show on the road and to play in Nashville, Tenn., and Memphis, Tenn., and Chattanooga, Tenn., and Murfreesboro, Tenn.—that's where we've been playing."
What's getting old to him is coming to Nashville and seeing better support for the opposing team than for his.
This Friday, Pearl and his program will be back in town, when they take part in the Sun Belt Classic, a men's basketball doubleheader at the Sommet Center. The Volunteers will play Middle Tennessee State at 6 p.m. and Vanderbilt will follow with an 8:30 p.m. contest against Western Kentucky.
It is the fifth straight year UT plays a non-conference game locally.
"We started by playing Murray State up there in a neutral site game," Pearl says. "Murray had more folks than we did. Our second year we played Oklahoma State on ESPN in a neutral site game and had a great, great win on a Dane Bradshaw tip-in, and the crowd was a little better. Then the following year we played up there against Western Kentucky in the (first) Sun Belt Classic...(and) they had more folks there than we did because Bowling Green was closer to Nashville.
"What's going to happen Friday night? It's so important that our fans come out and help us win that game."
With the atmosphere at Thompson-Boling secured (the Volunteers recently had a 37-game win streak at home) Pearl sees satellite venues throughout the state as one of the best ways to help put a fresh face on his program.
"Obviously, there are more things to a program than just winning," Pearl says. "It's graduating players. It's getting guys to go on and play professionally. It's being fourth in the nation in attendance. It's traveling well and having attendance on the road—that's really huge."
His belief is that on-the-road representation helps keep the top programs—regardless of sport—relevant and allows them to avoid the perception that they are stale.
In other words, putting people in the seats opens doors.
"Look at the bowl process right now—you look at that whole process and how important getting in the bowl games is concerned as it relates to fans' travel," he says.
"[And] how important is it to the Lady Vols? As Pat (Summit) has taken that program to the top of intercollegiate athletics, part of the great attraction is that nobody in women's college sports draws like the Lady Vols in women's basketball. Nobody. Nobody has a following like that.
"So as far as rejuvenating Tennessee basketball, the importance of a following is vital."
Email editor@ nashvillescene.com.
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