Lest anyone thinks Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl is not the most polarizing coach in the Southeastern Conference, here’s all the proof you need:
On Tuesday, he was named co-SEC Coach of the Year, sharing the award with Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie, in a voting of his peers.
And it was highway robbery.
How UK finished 12-4 in league play after the embarrassments of November and December is still a mystery. Gillispie did an admirable job in salvaging Kentucky’s season and deserves credit accordingly.
Here’s the catch: Gillispie had to dig himself out of his own hole and still doesn’t have a championship to show for it. Pearl, meanwhile, had the Vols rolling along all season, culminating in UT’s first-ever No. 1 ranking and first outright SEC title in 41 years.
And for that, he is forced to share the award?
This proves conclusively that while Pearl might be the SEC’s flashy, rising star, he’s also among the most despised coaches in the conference.
Had any other coach in the league guided his school to its first No. 1 ranking and first SEC championship since before Woodstock, he would have been a slam-dunk pick for Coach of the Year.
Not with Pearl, though, and it’s because his combination of winning and bombast rubs people the wrong way.
Were Tennessee not winning, Pearl’s orange coats, Patton-like public speeches, bare-chested TV appearances and windy self-promotion would not be a source of such consternation.
Start winning conference championships, however, and all those things become doubly irritating. Suddenly, Pearl is like an annoying gnat that can’t be swatted away.
Contrast Pearl with Florida coach Billy Donovan, who has won two consecutive national championships but still is well-liked. You’ll rarely, if ever, hear a coach say a bad word about him.
Why? Because Donovan plays it close to the vest, espouses humility and even dresses “appropriately” for every game. In coaching, there are certain things that are acceptable and certain things that aren’t.
As for a slick-talker such as Pearl, the other coaches’ attitude is, ‘Well, we’ll show him by not voting for him as Coach of the Year when he clearly deserves to win it outright.’
Funny thing is, Pearl knows how he is perceived around the SEC and doesn’t care. He just goes about his business – which has at times justifiably been criticized – and is building Tennessee into a national power.
Pearl has a prime opportunity to get under everyone’s skin again as the SEC Tournament begins Thursday in Atlanta.
Unlike the women’s tournament, which is often a three-day dog-and-pony show to get to the inevitable Tennessee-LSU championship matchup, the men’s tournament is usually unpredictable.
In two of the past four years, the regular-season championship hasn’t even played in the SEC Tournament championship game.
Further, Tennessee hasn’t won the tournament crown since 1979 and hasn’t even competed in the title game since 1991.
We look for that to change this season and for the Vols to knock off Mississippi State on Sunday.
If so, rest assured there will be a lot of annoyed coaches around the SEC.
Brett Hait covers Vanderbilt athletics and the Southeastern Conference for The City Paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.