KNOXVILLE, TENN. (AP) - Coach Bruce Pearl likes to talk about family, both his real family and his Tennessee Volunteers family. Fortunately for him, the two overlap.
It will be quite the family affair for Pearl on Saturday when the Vols (16-10, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) host Georgia.
Son Steven will be on the court as one of the Volunteers’ reserve forwards, daughter Jacqui will sing the national anthem and his wife, Brandy, will be there to promote the family’s goal to raise $1 million for cancer prevention programs as part of Tennessee’s Outlive campaign.
“One of the things about being here is I’m not a guest,” Pearl said. “It’s our life. It just makes sense because in order to be effective in my job it requires the family’s commitment, their tolerance of having to share me.”
They also helped him bear the frustration and sadness he felt while suspended from coaching the Vols during the first eight SEC games of the season as punishment for misleading NCAA investigators during an ongoing probe into recruiting by him and his staff.
The Outlive campaign, in its third season, is part of the Pearls’ effort to give back to Tennessee and the Knoxville community. It was the idea of former graduate assistant Brooks Savage, who was inspired after learning of former Tennessee guard Chris Lofton’s battle with testicular cancer and that Pearl’s mother, Barbara, was a cancer survivor.
Proceeds from the sale of T-shirts that fans are being encouraged to wear to the Georgia game as part of a “white out” and tickets to a fundraising event the Pearls will host in April will be donated to the University of Tennessee Medical Center Cancer Institute.
Pearl wouldn’t even be coaching the Vols without the blessing of his family, particularly his two oldest children. Jacqui was attending the University of Wisconsin and Steven was a junior in high school when Pearl interviewed with Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton in the spring of 2005 after leading Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the NCAA regional semifinals.
“I wanted the job badly, but I answered him, ‘I can’t say right now, Mike, because I’ve got to go home and talk to my family.’ If they really had strong objections at that time _ I had seven guys coming back, we were going to be better the next year at Milwaukee _ but (Steven) said, ‘No dad, let’s go.’”
Steven Pearl didn’t get much interest from schools when it came time to graduate high school, but he also was interested in remaining close to his family. He’s played a much larger role for the Vols during his senior season thanks to his solid defensive play and strong leadership on and off the court.
“I’ve always been vocal because I feel like a lot of the guys on the team will listen to me,” said Steven, 23. “A lot of them shut down when the other guys talk to them, but I feel like they respect me enough to listen to me and know that I have their best interest at heart.”
Bruce Pearl gets a little teary-eyed sometimes when he talks about the way Steven became a bigger leader during his suspension. He knows his son puts up with extra heckling and pressure from outside the program and that there’s an extra challenge that comes with playing for your father.
“I try to let there be a separation between the coach and the father,” Bruce Pearl said. “There have been times I will say, ‘All right, who do you want to talk to? Do you want to talk to your coach or do you want to talk to your dad?’ It helps us because if he can’t confide in his dad, then who can he go to?”
Pearl’s two younger children from his previous marriage, 17-year-old Leah and 15-year-old Michael, could end up filling in for Steven after he leaves Tennessee. Leah, a junior at Knoxville’s Bearden High School, plans to try out for the Vols’ dance team, and Michael is an aspiring basketball coach who likes to watch film and draw up plays and also wants to attend Tennessee.
Like Michael, Jacqui used to spend time watching game tape with her dad. When Bruce Pearl and Steven participated in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2009 as coach and player for the U.S. basketball team, Jacqui went along and kept stats and assisted as a kind of team manager.