one-on-one with ut’s basketball head coaches, pat summitt and bruce pearl
The classic basketball definition of an assist is a pass to a teammate that leads directly to a field goal.
The Tennessee definition of an assist may have more to do with the two big-name coaches who’ve turned Knoxville into a hoops hotspot.
Pat Summitt and Bruce Pearl. You would almost have to be a space alien not to know about the Lady Vols and Vols head basketball coaches. They’re on TV, they’re in Sports Illustrated, they turn up at your United Way or your alumni chapter meeting. They’re charismatic, competent, and competitive right down to their toenails. And, wonder of wonders, they not only get along, they even like each other.
In looks and upbringing they’re a mismatched set: Pearl swarthy, muscular, a Massachusetts kid who, he insists unabashedly, was the best ball player in town before his leg injury and Summitt, trim and pale, farm raised in Cheatham County, Tennessee, personal responsibility drilled into her early. Surprisingly, the two have much in common that makes them good coaches and good citizens.
Both Summitt and Pearl suffered serious leg injuries as teens. Summitt was able to overcome hers and go on to play on the 1976 silver-medal-winning USA Olympic team. Despite six surgeries, Pearl never played again competitively. At Boston College, he was basketball team manager.
Summitt has won eight national championships in her 35 years at Tennessee. She has notched more victories than any other coach in the NCAA, female or male.
Now in his fourth season, Pearl has revitalized Tennessee basketball with its first number-one ranking, a Southeastern Conference championship, and back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Pearl sums it up: “I hate to lose more than anybody.” He thrives on competition and says all the sweat and effort he puts into his work pay off when he wins: “The thrill of victory makes it all worthwhile.”
Summitt actually tries to downplay her competitive spirit. “I’ve taken a lot of emotion out of my coaching. I’m not as competitive in other things as I used to be. I used to be terrible playing cards; if I lost, I’d insist we play again. Now I channel most of my competitiveness into basketball.” A loss is a lesson to be learned from, to examine again and again—and yet again. She still regrets missed opportunities of more than 30 years ago when her Lady Vols were among the fortunate few teams who had a somewhat adequate budget and more than their share of talent: “We should have won more.”
Summitt’s demanding style of coaching is no secret. The steely stare she locks onto errant players is well documented in pictures and print. “I see more in others than they see in themselves,” she explains. Team practices give her an ample opportunity to exercise her passion for teaching, and she says she even loves time outs during games because they offer more, albeit brief, time to instruct. If players aren’t focused during practice, they’ll hear about it from their coach: “That just gets to me. I tell them, ‘we will be keeping score.’?”
Pearl says his team deserves his best effort. “I remember the best teachers I had. I want to be that for my players. They see two sides of me, the friend and the coach. If they do something wrong, I want them to be afraid I’ll be disappointed instead of afraid I’ll be mad.”
Pearl describes his full-to-overflowing days as “putting 20 pounds of potatoes into a 10-pound sack.”
“I try to cram way too much into a day,” echoes Summitt.
Pearl says his lifestyle may be harried, but it’s OK with him. “This job requires that it’s a life. I’ve got no complaint with that. I’m at the service of this team and the university and the fans. I’ve worked so hard to coach at this level.”
“I want to be out in the community,” Summitt says. She’s a big United Way booster, and she supports countless other worthy causes ranging from lupus to lung disease.
Pearl has hustled Tennessee basketball to great success: attendance is among the tops in the nation. “I’ve tried to speak to every organization and alumni group and class, and I’m not cutting back on that. I don’t want people to say, ‘He talked to us when the seats weren’t filled and now he won’t.’ I will not let that happen.”
Both these public people crave private time.
“My kitchen is my favorite place to be,” Summitt says. “I love to cook. Home is a safe haven.”
And Pearl, the seemingly extroverted and ebullient funny guy, agrees: “I’m a homebody. I’m really pretty boring.”