Pearl teaches more than basketball
By By Paul Finebaum
In a year in sports dominated by thugs and cretins, allegations, indictments and plea bargains, I was shocked to read something the other day that personified class and integrity and the lessons of life that can occasionally be learned from intercollegiate athletics.
A head coach, even one who earns millions of dollars, turned his lofty perch as a rock star into a pulpit and preached to his team about the cruelty of life and the wondrous joy of freedom.
And while it's only August, I wonder if it's too early to nominate Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl for "Sportsman of the Year," an honor given out every December by Sports Illustrated magazine.
What the third-year basketball coach in Knoxville has done is far more important than his near upset of top-ranked Ohio State last year (at one point, the Vols led by 20) in the NCAA's Sweet 16. It has little to do with him completely turning around a moribund basketball program and energizing a community in a way where he rivals Pat Summitt for star status in Knoxville.
Pearl recently did what many basketball coaches do – take advantage of practice time offered by the NCAA every four years for international travel.
Unlike some coaches, who take teams to exotic islands, which really amounts to nothing more than a day at the beach, Pearl took his young team back in time to one of the darkest chapters and most horrific crevasses in the history of mankind.
The other day, while his team toured Eastern Europe, Pearl spent a day showing his team the Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic. Pearl didn't need a tour guide, either. He turned a basketball trip into a history lesson, to say nothing of a lesson about life and freedom.
In an article written by Pearl for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, he wrote, "A basketball game was played Saturday night; a basketball game will be played today. I'll try to teach them to do a better job with their transition defense and to communicate better. But this visit to the Terezin concentration camp was probably the most important lesson of our trip. Who knows what lasting effect this will have on my players? It's my hope that when they're faced with a difficult decision of what's right or wrong, even if it's an unpopular choice, that they will make the best decision."
Pearl talked about relatives and old family friends lost in the Holocaust.
His son, Steven, who plays on his father's team, said: "You hear about it, and you see the pictures, but when you're face to face with it, and it's the real thing, it's different," he told the Knoxville newspaper. "This was kind of a bonding experience with many of my teammates. Their families endured similar things; with the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement, we can all appreciate what our families have gone through. We think we have it bad sometimes, but you see something like this, and you realize we have it much better than many, many others. This was a growing experience."
Not only did Pearl relate stories passed down from his family, he took along a UT history professor, and turned the trip into an interactive classroom with lessons and assignments.
Dr. David Tompkins, the professor, asked the UT team to keep a daily journal of the visit and the players will be required to give an oral presentation at various historical sites along the tour.
Pearl is not the first coach to take a ball team to a historic site. John Thompson, the legendary basketball coach at Georgetown, accompanied his team many years ago to the Civil Right Museum in Birmingham, just hours before an NCAA Sweet 16 game.
While at LSU, Nick Saban had the Rev. Jesse Jackson talk to his team about his experiences with Martin Luther King Jr., and many others during the Civil Rights Movement.
Perhaps what Pearl has done really shouldn't be considered very remarkable. After all, he has simply fulfilled his obligation as an educator. But it's so rare nowadays, it caught me completely off guard.
However, for those who have been following Pearl's remarkable story, it probably shouldn't have been surprising. Not only is he one of the most charismatic coaches I've ever met, he is also perhaps the most genuine.
Last year, Pearl spoke to a group in Knoxville, where he talked about his heritage, and his family, fighting back tears. Finally, the dam broke and hehad to stop his speech because the emotion had completely overwhelmed him.
All coaches – well most – show up at various charity events in a college town, mainly for photo ops and good public relations. Pearl simply doesn't know how to say no to an invitation, whether it is spending a day recently at a camp for handicapped children or donating his own money or helping to raise money for a worthy cause. It is his way of sharing his good fortune.
He also genuinely supports the other coaches on campus, evidenced by his appearance at a women's game dressed in war paint and the reciprocal move by Summitt dressed as a cheerleader.
What he has really done over time, but particularly this week, is to remind even the most cynical of us is that sometimes real good can actually come from going to play ball on an athletic scholarship and having the right headcoach.
While biding one's time, hoping to become a lottery pick in the NBA or a first-round draft choice in the NFL, "student-athletes" can actually learn something about life and the vagaries of world history.
In the Czech Republic this week, Bruce Pearl not only taught his basketball players what happened to his forefathers in the death camps of Eastern Europe, he taught us all a lesson as well.
Paul Finebaum is a guest columnist for The Franklin County Times. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.