Maccabiah Persistence Pays Off for Bruce Pearl

Jerry Mittleman
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Jerry Mittleman

Bruce Pearl has been waiting for 20 years to coach in the Maccabiah and even longer to make his first visit to Israel. Both dreams came to fruition this month when the University of Tennessee's 49-year-old basketball coach arrived here to coach the U.S. men's squad in the 18th Maccabiah.

Pearl will try to lead his squad to a gold medal against highly-favored Israel. He said he expected strong competition from Russia and Argentina, and this week his team had mixed results. The U.S. lost a 73-71 heartbreaker to Russia on Sunday, but bounced back to beat Argentina 97-89 last night.

"Basketball coaches have to work their way up through the ranks just like players," explained Pearl last week to Haaretz. "For years, I sent tapes and letters to the Maccabiah's basketball committee before they finally started considering me seriously. Then the members needed to assess that I was seriously committed, since July is height of recruiting season for college ball."

The change in the estimation of Maccabiah officials coincides with the meteoric rise in Tennessee's basketball fortunes in the four short seasons since Pearl took over the reins in Knoxville. The energetic, charismatic Pearl metamorphosed a moribund program, leading the Volunteers to 98 victories and a first ever number-one ranking in the national polls for a few short days in February 2008.

Persistence is one of Pearl's strongest traits, helping him rise from college basketball's graveyard to national prominence. In 1989, while serving as an assistant coach at University of Iowa, Pearl lost a recruiting war with the University of Illinois for the services of Deon Thomas, who later went on to a pro career in Israel, including several seasons as a successful role player for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Pearl subsequently broke an unwritten recruiting code by presenting the NCAA with evidence of alleged irregularities by Illinois, in a move termed at the time by commentator Dick Vitale as "career suicide."

Despite a cold shoulder from many in the coaching fraternity, Pearl persevered and three years later began a highly successful head coaching career, applying the knowledge he acquired from his mentor at Iowa , Dr. Tom Davis.

Pearl rejuvenated his coaching career at the small college level at Southern Indiana, which had won only 10 games in the season before his arrival. Southern Indiana never won fewer than 22 games during his nine seasons there, including a NCAA Division II title in his third season.

Success at Southern Indiana earned Pearl a crack at Division I ball at mid-major University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During his four seasons there, Pearl led the program to unprecedented heights, including the school's first ever appearances in the NCAA post-season tournament in 2003 and 2005.

The national exposure that comes with success at the NCAA tournament led Pearl to the job at Tennessee. At Tennessee, he has teamed with the women's team's legendary coach Pat Summitt, making Knoxville one of the hottest spots on the college basketball map of America. "We provide a real family atmosphere at Tennessee and the combined men's-women's basketball program is probably one of the two or three best in the whole country," according to Pearl.

Pearl gained national attention during the 2006-7 season, when he and several of his players painted their upper bodies bright orange (the school color) and cheered on the Lady Volunteers at one of their games. Several weeks later, Summitt returned the favor by coming to a men's game as a cheerleader dressed in cheerleading attire.

The collaboration with Summitt, arguably the most successful women's basketball coach in history, has been an excellent experience for Pearl. "She is humble and hungry with a real thirst for knowledge. She has been a great teacher for me."

Now that Pearl has finally made it to Israel, he is planning to visit again. "Actually I wanted to come here when I was in high school and work on a kibbutz. Then I went off to college and at 22 got a great chance to be an assistant at Stanford. I would really like to start coming here to give coaching clinics."

Pearl also has a high opinion of Israeli basketball and the level of coaching here, and would love to start recruiting Israeli players at Tennessee.

Known as something of a miracle worker who employs an aggressive style of defense and rapid offense, Pearl has his work cut out for him with his squad here, especially after their top player, Jon Scheyer of Duke, pulled out of the tournament because of school commitments. "There is no doubt that Israel is the favorite here," said Pearl. "Our team has depth, perimeter shooting and plays well together, but we lack a dominant inside player. Also, we have only been together for five days, but I'm sure by the end of the tournament we'll be playing up-tempo basketball."

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