By now, those not living under a rock know about Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl’s mystical mastery over Florida coach Billy Donovan.
Pearl entered Tuesday night’s matchup with Florida 8-1 in his career against Donovan. Five of UF’s losses, though, were in games decided by five points or less.
But what fans may not know is what began as a frosty relationship between the two has thawed over the years. Last month, when Pearl called upon Donovan for a charity function to benefit the University of Tennessee’s cancer screening center, Donovan agreed to attend. Together, Pearl and Donovan raised close to $60.000 less than 24 hours before they were to coach against each other on the court the following Sunday.
“I don’t think I ever met (Pearl) before he came into the league,” Donovan said. “And then certainly the SEC spring meetings, we as coaches spend two days together, talk about our league issues and things like that. competing against our teams and then seeing him in July recruiting.
“I have great respect for him and his teams and the way they play. He reached out to me in the beginning of January before the conference started and explained the situation with (former UT guard) Chris Lofton (who was diagnosed with testicular cancer during his senior season) and what he went through and what the doctors at the Tenn. medical center did for him, there was a young man on their staff, a manager, that was really involved. And I told him that I would do that.”
Pearl ruffled some feathers in the coaching fraternity in his first year at Tennessee with a showmanship that some felt bordered on bombast. Everyone, for example, remembered Pearl showing up bare-chested in body paint to a Tennessee women’s basketball game that was televised on ESPN. But for Pearl, it was a way to market a Tennessee men’s basketball program that only had pockets of success in previous seasons.
Few could argue with Pearl’s results on the court. In four seasons, he’s let the Vols to four straight NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s and one Southeastern Conference regular season title.
“I think competition in anything you do in life makes you better,” Donovan said. “I don’t think you can ever shy away from competition because competition is the one thing that allows you to strive and get better … Competing against his teams, has hopefully made me a better coach, just like competing against Stallings’ teams (at Vanderbilt) or Calipari’s teams (at Kentucky). I always look at the competition for me personally as a great opportunity to grow and get better. And I think competition is the greatest thing for self improvement if you are really talking about trying to become the best that you can become.”