Inside Bruce Pearl's close friendship with the late Pat Summitt

Bryce Miller
The Register

Note: This story appeared in the Des Moines Register on March 24, 2012. Legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, 64, died Tuesday

When it was announced in August that legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt was dealing with a condition known as early onset dementia, Bruce Pearl wanted to rush in and support his former colleague and friend.

After all, the former Volunteers men's coach had done it before.

In 2007, Pearl dominated national TV highlights when he joined shirtless students who painted their chests bold, Volunteers orange to spell "GO VOLS!" at a Tennessee women's game.

Pearl, the proud, shirtless "V" among the crush of students, brought an even bigger national TV spotlight to the program through endless ESPN highlights and beyond.

"I told our team that we needed to support the team, so I needed to put my money where my mouth is," Pearl said in a telephone interview with the Des Moines Register. "She came over after the game, and I got a big kiss."

Pearl, though, couldn't rush to his friend. Not this time.

The former Iowa assistant basketball coach was fired in March 2011 after the NCAA determined he initially lied about violations involving contact with Tennessee recruits.

Pearl later was given a three-year penalty by the NCAA that essentially limited his ability land a Division I coaching position during the term of the penalty.

He made the difficult decision not to attend Lady Vol games, but said no one should think — for an orange-hued minute — that he hasn't followed the teams every step, and will be watching televised games this weekend.

Mar 18, 2014; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers new head basketball coach Bruce Pearl addresses fans after his arrival at the Auburn University Regional Airport on Tuesday.   Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

"C'mon, now," Pearl said, in his hard-to-believe-you-asked voice, about whether he'd watch games this weekend. "I didn't go to the games this year, because I didn't want to be a distraction.

"But I watched every one on TV."

Pearl learned much about the person he now calls both coach and friend.

He said many mistakenly assume Summitt's icy glare and firmly set sideline jaw reveal the person away from the court.

"At first (when he was hired at Tennessee), I was intimidated by who she was and what she'd done," Pearl said.

The first day Pearl was hired, he asked to fly on a university plane to a regional final game in Philadelphia, where Summitt-coached Tennessee would beat Rutgers for a spot in the Final Four.

Some implored the new men's coach to go down to the court and celebrate with his new team.

"No," Pearl said. "That's their time."

Summitt would have none of it. She saw Pearl in the crowd, waved him down to the floor and introduced him to as many players as she could.

"She treated my life we've been friends forever," he said. "That's who she is."

Legendary Tennessee Lady Volunteers head coach Pat Summitt cuts down and waves the net after her team defeated the LSU Tigers 70-58 during the finals of the 2012 SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena. Summitt, 64, died Tuesday.

Pearl said the Pat Summitt he knows breaks into the song Rocky Top without being provoked, in all kinds of social situations ("she made Karoake popular before it was in fashion"), is as competitive at golf as basketball and fought off a famous squirrel that attacked her dog one day on the back porch of her home.

"I guarantee that squirrel met its match," said Pearl, laughing.

Pearl stopped himself: "Her greatest accomplishment, though, despite all the wins and championships, is her son, Tyler. She's an incredible mother and that's probably what she takes the most pride in."

Going back to that clothing-limited moment in 2007, Pearl recalls the appreciative Summitt returning his support at a men's game, showing up in a cheerleader outfit.

"She put on that cheerleading outfit a few weeks later, and sang (Tennessee fight song) Rocky Top in front of 21,000 people," he said. "That night, we beat the defending national champion Florida Gators."

For Pearl, the memories kept flooding back — too many to tell in one phone call.

Then he paused, mustering up something he wanted to say that clearly meant much to him.

"Through all my troubles ...," he said, "Pat has maintained our friendship."