A NEW ENGLAND PEARL
By Angela Lento, Basketball Times
Growing up in New England, Bruce Pearl gained a true
appreciation for how difficult it is to win a championship.
Often misunderstood is the birthright of native New Englander,
which is woven into the fabric of the UW-Milwaukee head coach.
He's a Red Sox fan.
"When you live through Bucky Dent's homer and the ball rolling
through Bill Buckner's legs, you realize that good things don't
come easy," laughs Pearl. "Being a Red Sox fan does prepare you
for a lot of things."
If it is true that New Yorkers are fast-paced and demanding,
then their neighbors to the north have to be thick-skinned and
forever looking to the future, with a true understanding of
nothing comes easy.
In 1995, Pearl got one-up on his beloved Sox, coaching Southern
Indiana to a Division II national championship. But his approach
and New England mindset have helped him better cope with defeat.
And despite some impressive achievements, Pearl is focused only
on the big prize.
Pearl was a three-sport star, growing up in Sharon, Mass., but
devastating knee injuries all but ended his playing career in
high school. It was a tough pill for the young Pearl to swallow
sports totally defined him.
"Since I couldn't play, I decided to coach," says Pearl. "I
coached everything, baseball, basketball, football. I loved
working with kids, getting them to compete and taking them for
hot fudge sundaes after the game. I couldn't play, but I could
still be involved."
As an under-graduate at Boston College, Pearl started to take on
various duties for the BC basketball program, everything from
helping with campus visits to officiating and serving as a
Under the watchful eye of head coach Dr. Tom Davis, Pearl served
in numerous capacities. For Pearl, it was simply a way to stay
involved, but all that changed with one phone call in the spring
"I remember it like it was yesterday." says Pearl. "I was at my
future wife's house in Nashua, N.H., when I got a call that Dr.
Tom wanted to see me. I though I had done something wrong and I
was going to hear about it, but as I was driving down to
Chestnut Hill (Mass.), it suddenly dawned on me - coach Davis
has taken another job and he is going to ask me to come with
Pearl was exactly right.
Davis had accepted the head coaching position at Stanford, and
he had an invitation for Pearl to join him.
Oddly enough, until that moment Pearl had never given a single
thought to being a coach. He coached Little League Baseball and
Pop Warner Football because it simply was something that he
enjoyed. He viewed it as helping more than coaching.
Until asked by Davis, Pearl never gave coaching a thought.
"It was that one phone call," laughs Pearl. "If Dr. Tom had not
called, I would probably be a landscaper today."
Ten years later, Pearl would change the landscape of Division II
Pearl served under Davis for 14 seasons, learning the
intricacies of the game and assisting in the success of the
program at BC, Stanford and Iowa.
In 1984, Stanford's streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons
ended with at 19-12 campaign. In six seasons at Iowa, the
Hawkeyes went to five NCAA tournaments, twice appearing in the
Sweet Sixteen and advancing to the Elite Eight in 1987.
The following season, Basketball Weekly tabbed Pearl as one of
the top Division I assistants.
It was time for Bruce Pearl to take a head coaching position.
"At the time I did not have a real appreciation for how good
Division II basketball was," says Pearl. "I spoke with a lot of
people who told me that high Division II might be better than
low Division I, but I still underestimated just how good the
caliber of coaches and players was."
Considering what he accomplished at Southern Indiana from
1992-2001, one would conclude that he was either a quick
learning or a terrific coach.
Both would be more accurate.
Under the guidance of Pearl, SIU had nine consecutive 20-win
seasons and nine consecutive NCAA appearances. Six times they
were ranked No. 1 nationally, and six times they advanced to the
Sweet Sixteen. And prior to winning it all in '95, SIU was the
national runner-up in 1994.
The gaudiest number is 231 wins in nine seasons. And oh, by the
way, Pearl reached the 200-victory plateau at one school sooner
than any basketball coach in history.
"I learned so much at Southern Indiana," says Pearl. "It better
prepared me to be a Division I head coach. The difference
between Division II and lower Division I is not that great. It
was good for me to go from being a Division II head coach, as
opposed to being a Division I assistant to head coach."
His nine-year run at Southern Indiana also helped to mold the
coaching style which he brought to the University of
Pearl credits Davis for 75 percent of his success and for what
he knows about the game. Pearl likes to play up-tempo but also
has the patience to play a Princeton-style half court affair.
Much of what he does today can also be seen in Davis' Drake
But the other 25 percent comes from his tenure at the D-II
"I quickly learned that they shoot the ball very well at the
Division II level, so I needed to become a better teacher of
man-to-man defense," says Pearl. "So I went and spent time with
Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, and the first video tape I ever
brought was Dick Bennett's tape on defense, when he was coaching
at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Nobody has invented anything new
recently. We are all sponges."
Of course, concept and ideas are only good in theory. They still
have to be applied, and Pearl has done a nice job of adding
parts within the framework of his coaching philosophy.
And that philosophy begins with one simple idea-work hard or
play someplace else.
"I am not an easy guy to work for," laughs Pearl. "I won't ask
my players or assistant to do anything that I wouldn't do
myself. I tell kids that if you are looking for shortcuts, then
you want to look someplace else to play our college basketball."
It's that New England mindset.
Boston fans understand all too well that the Red Sox seemingly
aren't going to beat the hated Yankees, but they can live with
that fact if the players leave it all out on the field.
Undoubtedly, sports fans everywhere long for the day when Boston
does raise a championship banner, if for no other reason because
it will cast hope upon all others that, "if they can do it so
It's a banner that Pearl took with him to UWM and one that he
waves with responsibility.
"I do fell an obligation," says Pearl. "Wisconsin-Milwaukee gave
Bo Ryan a chance, and when he left, they gave me a chance. There
are a lot of great non-Division I coaches who just need an
opportunity. Bo has had success, and I have had some success,
which might in turn give someone else an opportunity."
And Pearl has enjoyed more than just "some" success.
In his first season, Pearl guided the Panthers to their highest
win-total (16) since the 1992-93 season. His 16 wins also
equaled the most by any first-year coach in UWM's 108-year
In addition, UWM won a record 11 games in the Horizon, posted
the highest regular-season finish (second) in school history and
for the first time ever went to the NCAA Tournament.
Impressive numbers, to which Pearl chuckles, "They overcame my
Between the lines, Pearl is all business, and there is little
reason to doubt that his success will not continue. There is
also good reason to believe that Pearl will be working his trade
at a higher-profile program in the very near future.
As for the future of his beloved Sox, Pearl is less than jovial
about Alex Rodriguez now in pinstripes, but he quickly points
out that the 2004 Red Sox "will be very good."
And give the choice of someday beating those damn Yankees and
then winning a World Series or one day taking a team to the
Final Four and winning a national championship, Pearl replied:
(Long pause) "That's tough, but I am too competitive, so I'll
take the Final Four."
The pause is understandable, as many New Englanders would part
with one of their own children for a world championship.
This feature was originally printed in the March issue of