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 practice player.

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 of 1982.

"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 him."

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 basketball.

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 Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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 Bulldogs.

But the other 25 percent comes from his tenure at the D-II level.

"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 can we."

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 history.

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 coaching."

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 Basketball Times.


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