Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Farewell to Bruce Pearl

In not-so-shocking news, Bruce Pearl is headed to Tennessee. And I can’t blame him, though I would have loved to have had him back, and I generally agree with those who say that Tennessee isn’t the greatest head coaching gig in the world. Critics of the Tennessee job will tell you that men’s basketball still lags behind women’s basketball, and Vols football when it comes to fan interest, and that a string of coaches at Tennessee have failed to overcome this fact. And they would be right. But the facts add up to making this the right job for Pearl right now.

Pearl is hotter than he’s ever been, or is likely to ever be. Tennessee is one of only three semi-big-time programs that is looking for a coach this year. Tennessee is also throwing buckets of money at Pearl. The choice is simple. If it doesn’t make sense to you, answer these questions:

1) Why not wait a year for better jobs to open up? Bruce Pearl will still be a red-hot commodity in a year.

--Yeah, and he might not be. Remember when Tom Crean was coaching Marquette to the Final Four and Illinois was said to be interested in him? It made tremendous sense at the time, since Crean was the “it” guy and achieved incredible early success. A few years and a few NITs later, do you think if Bruce Weber were kidnapped by terrorists that top-ranked Illinois would go anywhere near Crean (who has a pretty good gig already, anyway)? If head coaches think they can get more money or more prestige, they have to strike when they’re at their peak. They’re usually not as good as their best years or as bad as their worst years. If you are looking to cash out and you’re Bruce Pearl, there’s never been a better time than now. Why turn your back on a sure $850,000 per year in hopes of finding something better later on?

2) Why a difficult job like Tennessee? Why not UMass or Virginia?

--It’s not a great lot, but for Bruce Pearl, Tennessee’s the best of the lot. Pushing aside that UMass already got their man, I’ve never thought of that as a high-prestige job. Sure, some nice things happened in the early-1990s, but that’s a pretty brief span of attention, and the A-10 isn’t a killer conference. Virginia is probably the best job out there, but like lots of the ACC schools, Virginia is an unbelievable academic school. That doesn’t strike me as a fit for Pearl, whose roster at UWM was full of transfers, juco and otherwise. That leaves Tennessee. They’re in a good conference, they’ve got nice facilities, and they have a few blemishes, but they’ve also got an $850,000 check for you. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best out there.

So who does UWM get now? The three names talked about most often these days are Wisconsin assistant Rob Jeter, two-time defending D3 national champ coach Jack Bennett, and the wildcard, Rick Majerus. My choice from the moment that I realized Pearl leaving would be a possibility was Bennett. UWM has gone to stellar lower level head coaches before (Pearl from D2, Bo Ryan from D3) and each has had tremendous success since making the move up. Why not work the formula again. Detractors will ask why you would take an up-tempo team and hand it off to the brother of Dick Bennett, master of the slow-down game. To them I say look at Jack Bennett’s Stevens Point teams, and you’ll see a team that generally puts up 80 points per game. Don’t confuse Jack with his perpetually tormented brother. The main question that I would have about Bennett is whether he’d want the job, and if he’d be willing to move. I’m sure he’s got a nice little niche carved out for himself in the Stevens Point community.

Of course, Majerus throws a monkey wrench into the whole deal, because if he wanted to coach in his hometown, it would be awesome. He’s a huge name, he’d keep people coming to the arena, and we know he can coach. And though he’s turned down better jobs, he has some bizarre love for his hometown of Milwaukee (he lives here now) that even beats out my feelings for the city, so you can’t rule it out as you would for any other mid-major. Longer term, I’d take Bennett, but I wouldn’t be angry if Majerus got back into the game. It reminds me of when his name was mentioned for the Wisconsin vacancy a few years back. My choice from the beginning (and I can back this up—my old college roommate Ross will document that as far back as 1998 I was throwing this opinion out) was Bo Ryan, who seemed to be the Badgers’ fifth choice. And while I would have been disappointed if the Badgers had hired Brad Soderberg, or Ben Braun, or Ray McCallum, over Ryan, Majerus wouldn't have outwardly angered me. You can’t help but like the guy, even when he's not the most prudent choice. If health allows and he’s interested, though, strictly from a marketing standpoint, he’d have to be the guy.

And then there’s Jeter, who is an assistant, so I don’t know much about him, other than that he’s supposed to be a good recruiter, and that when he plays with the Badgers in practice, he’s better than a good portion of the players on the current Wisconsin roster. Maybe he’d be nice, but UWM is at a pretty tough spot right now. I don’t want to take a chance on giving some guy his first job. Though, there’s a good chance I could be horrifically wrong on this one.

So there’s my call. I’ll be interested if UWM finds someone completely different without state ties, though. Let’s not forget, a few years back I picked up a paper and started reading, thinking “Hmmm, who’s this Bruce Pearl guy? I wonder if he’ll be any good.” So, I’ll let my faith rest with UWM. The last two decisions have worked out pretty well.

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