Holding “court” with Bruce Pearl  

University of Tennessee head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl is finally going to fulfill his dream of visiting Israel, when Pearl will coach the U.S. men’s team in the upcoming Maccabiah Games, which will take place in mid-July.

“I had always planned after high school to go to Israel,” Pearl told JewishSport.org, “and when I went to Boston College I thought I would get to Israel after I graduated. But before I even graduated I was offered a position as an assistant to head Stanford University coach Dr. Tom Davis, so I missed out on going to Israel at that time. After that I got married and started my family, so finally I will have the opportunity to get over to Israel – it’s been a long time coming. I had hoped for some time to be involved with coaching at the Maccabiah Games.  It took a while – till I got to Tennessee and had the kind of profile that qualified me for this role.”

After 17 years as a head coach in the college ranks, Pearl has indeed garnered a good amount of respect.  In those 17 years, Pearl has compiled a record of 415-121 (.774 winning percentage) putting him just ahead of new Kentucky head coach John Calipari, with 17 years experience also, and a .761 winning percentage (445-140), as the winningest men’s basketball coach by percentage in the SEC, and the fourth winningest coach by percentage among active Division 1 men’s basketball coaches.

Of course, Tennessee men’s basketball has long been in the shadows of the women’s program, headed up by the legendary Pat Summit. Summit has won seven national championships, and seen seven men’s coaches come and go during her tenure. Summit says Pearl has brought an atmosphere at men's games that now matches the women's games. She says she never thought it would happen at Tennessee. In his four years at Tennessee, Pearl has not only gotten the program back on track, but has become a salesman for the team, getting the word out on campus and in the community. Men’s basketball is selling out once more at Tennessee. In his third year at Tennessee, the program won the SEC regular season championship.

Pearl is the first Jewish coach in any sport at Tennessee (and the second Jewish basketball coach in the SEC – Eddie Fogler having been the first, coaching at Vanderbilt from 1989-1992 and at South Carolina from 1994-2001). Being in the Bible Belt, the Massachusetts native has been open about his Jewishness, and says it is something that Christians admire. When the Vols made a trip to Eastern Europe in the summer of 2008, Pearl took his players to a Nazi death camp, exposing them in person to the reality of the Holocaust. Jordan Howell, then a senior on the team, said that it brought the team closer together. His players say they respect Pearl’s faith just as he respects theirs, and that, too, brings them closer.

Pearl has been committed to bringing that same level of Jewish identity to his assignment as the men’s coach for the Maccabiah team. “One of my goals once I was onboard was to “upgrade” the experience Jewishly. Last summer, we had a training camp in Knoxville (home of the University of Tennessee) to which we invited about 25 student athletes. We spent 4 or 5 days together, which included going to Friday night Shabbat services here in Knoxville, where it was probably the first time most of the guys ever heard someone say “Shalom Y’all.”  

“In recruiting the players and throughout the team camps, it was important to me that we incorporate Shabbat services, and that we instill in them both a sense of pride and of responsibility in wearing their Judaism on their sleeve,” he added.

Pearl noted that “the level of play of our team is outstanding.  They can play a hard, physical game.  And that is what we will have to do over there – the open category is for players aged 18-32 so they will be playing against a lot of men. In fact some of our players themselves, like Dan Grunfeld, have a couple of years experience playing professionally in Europe or Israel.”

Grunfeld’s father, Ernie, who is currently the president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards, himself represented America at the Maccabiah Games in the 1970s. when his team won the silver medal. Another connection of note – Grunfeld was a second team All-American at Tennessee in 1977.

One of the goals of the Maccabiah Games since their inception in 1932 has been to encourage young Jews to make aliyah to Israel. In recent years, many American hoopsters have gone on to play for varying lengths of time in the Israeli league. Most have served in the Israeli army, and some have remained there well into adulthood. Says Pearl, “It’s a wonderful opportunity for Jewish athletes from the US to go to Israel and possibly gain dual citizenship to play basketball in Israel. But I’ll tell you – they have to be pretty good – Israeli basketball is one of the best professional leagues in the world.

 

For my part I am very excited to be wearing “USA” across my chest and representing my country in our Jewish homeland.  This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

For Pearl, it will be a family affair, as son Steven will be a member of the team. “I am looking forward to climbing Massada,” Pearl said, “I want to go to the (Western) Wall. I want to visit the Jewish sites… and I want to visit some Christian sites, too. If we walk on the tarmac when the plane lands I want to get on my hands and knees and kiss the ground. I thank God that there is an Israel.  I want to express my gratitude to the people over there for safeguarding Israel for us.”

With coaching these days a 12-month responsibility, Pearl noted that to take off 3 weeks or a month off is a pretty significant amount of time.  “I really appreciate the University of Tennessee for allowing me to take the time to coach at the Maccabiah Games and fulfill a dream.”

“Coaching is a business where the stakes are very high,” he added. “In this business, when you’re winning, they worried you’re going to leave, and when you’re losing you’re packing your bags.”

So how does Pearl maintain his sanity in such a pressure-filled job? “I worry about the things that are in my control – like how hard I work.  I’m a grinder – I think I work about as hard as anyone in the business.”

“I was an assistant coach for 14 years, then a Division 2 coach for 9 years before getting the opportunity to coach at the Division 1 level.  I try to make a difference in young people’s lives.  At the level where I am coaching now the financial rewards are much greater. It took me a long time to get here. But I don’t think there’s more pressure on me here (at Tennessee) than at (University of Wisconsin) Milwaukee or Southern Indiana. The thing that hasn’t changed is that I roll up my sleeves every day and do the best job I can – and understand that if it was easy anyone could do it.”

Pearl notes that his favorite part of the year is March, with all its excitement. But he adds, “I don’t wait till the season ends to start to think about the coming season. If you’re waiting till next year to worry about next year it’s too late. Teams are built years in advance.”

Given the chance, there are a few things Pearl would like to see changed. “I believe in opportunity – if a young man is good enough to make it (in the NBA) he should be afforded the opportunity. But if they’re going to go to college it would be great if they could stay for three years.  Do it like baseball. It’s a distraction for our players at the end of the season – at the end of your sophomore year you should be focused on going to your junior year, not worried about going to the NBA.”

Then there is the matter of NCAA restrictions on time spent with players. Coach Pearl would increase the amount of time the coaches have to work with their athletes.  “We get 20 hours a week – 8 hours in the offseason, and we can’t work with them at all in the summertime. If a musician were only allowed to practice eight hours a week they wouldn’t be very accomplished.  Same thing with science and research. I don’t think the allow us to teach and give us enough access.”

“The other thing I would be mindful of is that while we try to improve the academic standards, college scholarships should present an equal opportunity. Diversity on college campuses is extremely important and athletic scholarships have been a tremendous means to that end.  It would be a shame in the name of academic standards to prohibit access to some.”

It is clear from talking with Bruce Pearl that he cares very much about his players, and beyond figuring how to win games, he take seriously the role of helping them grow to become men. Like Pearl says, his Maccabiah athletes will be facing men on the court in Israel in July.  But with Bruce Pearl as their coach and – at least for a few weeks – teacher, it is likely that the American athletes will return home from that experience having grown a bit more as men – and as Jews – themselves.

 

 

Coach Bruce Pearl celebrating after University of Tennessee won the 2008 SEC regular-season championship.

Photo courtesy of UT Sports Information.