Pearl has transformed the Vols into national contenders

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There's a little Barnum & Bailey to Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl.

He admits it, even embraces it to a degree. You never know what you're going to get next. But you can bet that it's going to be entertaining, impassioned and teetering on the wild side.

It's the way he lives life and the way he coaches basketball.

Maybe he takes his shirt off, paints himself up orange and sits in the front row cheering for the Lady Vols on national television.

He's always on, and if you're going to play for him, you better be, too.

--JaJuan Smith

Maybe he jumps up on stage with Kenny Chesney and Uncle Kracker and turns rock star at an after-hours concert near campus.

Maybe he gets tossed (or threatened to be tossed) from a high school gym on two separate occasions for working officials, one of those times while watching his son, Steven, play and the other while recruiting one of the state's top prospects, Philip Jurick, who just happens to be signing with the Vols next week.

"He's always on, and if you're going to play for him, you better be, too," Tennessee senior guard JaJuan Smith said.

Of course, Pearl's most outlandish stunt is daring to transform Tennessee's once-moribund basketball program into a national contender seemingly overnight.

Even those who've been a part of that stunning metamorphosis have a hard time believing the difference in then and now. Senior guard Jordan Howell jokes that three years ago, he was getting letters in the mail telling him how bad the Vols were.

The letters are still coming in. Only now, people want pictures, autographs, even tickets.

"Some of us were here back when we weren't very good, and you sort of look around and think, 'How did we get here so fast?'" said Howell, the senior statesman on the team who redshirted his first season in 2003-04.

"The arena wasn't close to being full. We weren't going to the [NCAA] Tournament, and there wasn't any excitement. You were playing, and it was almost like, 'Does anybody really care?'"

That's all changed with Pearl, giving further credence to the notion that it's the coach who makes the program and not the other way around.

The No. 7 Vols open the season Friday at home against Temple sporting their highest preseason ranking in school history. The anticipation has almost been surreal at a place traditionally known for its zest for football and women's basketball.

"Bruce touches all the important bases that are required to be a successful basketball coach at our level," said Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who pulled the trigger on Pearl in the spring of 2005 after Pearl had toiled for 13 years in the Division II and mid-major ranks, averaging 24.2 wins a season.

"The thing about Bruce is that he has the combination of an incredible work ethic to go along with a healthy fear of failure, and you add to it that he's a very bright guy."

Forget for a moment that this rates with the deepest, most talented teams the Vols have ever put on the court. Look at what's transpired around the program.

Season tickets are sold out. There's a waiting list for luxury suites and premium club seating. Paid crowds in excess of 18,000 showed up for each of the first two exhibition wins over California (Pa.) and Lincoln Memorial University.

Thompson-Boling Arena, which used to have all the ambiance of an airplane hangar, just received a $19 million face-lift. And right beside it, there's a brand new $16 million practice facility, Pratt Pavilion.

If that's not enough, Pearl was able to bring the Vols' greatest player, Bernard King, back into the fold after King had all but cut ties with his alma mater for the past 30 years.

"But none of this is possible without putting a competitive team on the floor," said Pearl, who's crafted a 46-19 record with two NCAA Tournament appearances in his first two seasons at Tennessee.

The ironic thing is that Pearl's mentor, Dr. Tom Davis, told him not to take this job -- and with good reason. Buzz Peterson had just been fired following the 2004-05 season, marking the Vols' fifth head coaching change in 16 years. The word was out in coaching circles: There wasn't much of a commitment to men's basketball at Tennessee, and it was a coaching graveyard.

Even when Jerry Green took the Vols to four straight NCAA Tournaments from 1998-2001 and won an SEC championship in 2000, Tennessee fans never completely embraced those teams. Ron Slay, a former SEC Player of the Year and a member of the 2000 Sweet 16 team, still feels their talent was as good as anything the Vols have had since.

The difference? That's easy, Slay said.

It begins and ends with Pearl.

"You look at what he's done, how he's brought everything together, and there's an edge about them that we didn't have," said Slay, now playing professionally in Europe. "He's got the whole state of Tennessee excited about basketball."

Here's something else to get excited about if you bleed orange: Pearl may have too many good players this season, if that's possible.

There was a ceiling with his first two teams. But this team, once Arizona transfer J.P. Prince becomes eligible and returns from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in December, will be able to go 10 or 11 deep easily.

Senior guard Chris Lofton is the best pure shooter in the country and is one of those rare breeds who might be even better when he's contested. Transfer Tyler Smith was one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten last season as a freshman at Iowa, and Pearl says sophomore point guard Ramar Smith is the fiercest competitor on the team.

In the two exhibitions, freshman wing Cameron Tatum has been among the Vols' most active players and appears to be a natural for Pearl's pressing, up-and-down system. Inside, the Vols have a four-man rotation of Wayne Chism, Duke Crews, Ryan Childress and 6-foot-10, 267-pound freshman Brian Williams.

"Every day in practice, it's been a different guy," said Lofton, who averaged 20.8 points and made 106 3-pointers last season. "Our best five could change two or three times in the same week, and that's what you want. Nobody's job feels safe, because we have so many guys that can play."

Pearl's toughest job may be keeping all those guys happy, especially now that glue man and emotional leader Dane Bradshaw has moved on.

All Pearl has to do, though, is point to Florida's team the last two years, when three future lottery picks shared the basketball, played defense, bought into the concept of "team" and won back-to-back national championships.

Granted, the Vols don't have three lottery picks on their roster that are going to be mistaken for Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, but they're probably deeper than the Gators were a season ago.

"There reached a time in my first two years that what it was … was what it was," Pearl said. "There was not a lot more growth. The freshmen last year, we got about as much out of them as you could expect. When we got to the [NCAA] Tournament, the cream couldn't rise to the top. Those kids had risen all year long. There wasn't more. There's more upside to this team.

"I would expect this team to struggle early with the schedule, and we are going to have to establish some roles. The difference is that we will be a team that improves as the season goes on."

The Final Four talk has been bandied about rather liberally all offseason, really ever since the Vols departed San Antonio in March after blowing a 17-point halftime lead to Ohio State and losing 85-84 in the Sweet 16. It was only the second time in school history they advanced that far in the Tournament.

They didn't need to be reminded, either, that San Antonio is the site of this year's Final Four.

"The expectations are real. That's what we expect," Lofton said of a Final Four run. "At the same time, we've just got to realize that we're nothing right now. It's all on paper."

Perhaps so, but how can you doubt Pearl based on what he's done to this point? His flair for being a showman probably isn't going to win him any popularity contests with his SEC coaching peers. LSU's John Brady referred to him as "classless" after their game two years ago, and others in the league have mockingly dubbed him "Bruce Naismith."

Not a problem, Pearl says. The only people he wants to be popular with are the Tennessee fans.

And if he keeps winning, the respect will come -- no matter how many times he goes shirtless and paints himself up orange or how many toes he might step on along the way.

This is the same guy who's won fewer than 20 games only once in 15 years as a college head coach.

Sure, there are times when you think he might be better suited for the big top. But the guy has proven he can build a program. He's proven he can develop players, and he's proven he can win.

Now he gets a chance to prove that he can do the unimaginable: lead Tennessee to the Final Four … in men's basketball.

"Can I keep it going? I don't know," Pearl said. "Can I live up to expectations? I don't know. But that's why I'm in it."

Bring on the trapezes, because this ought to be fun.

Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnclow@aol.com.