Watching new Boston College basketball coach Steve Donahue address the students assembled at a campus pep rally late Wednesday afternoon got me thinking about Bruce Pearl.
Donahue, by every account a terrific coach and good guy, won't exactly be confused with Bruce Springsteen circa 1978 when it comes to whipping a crowd into a frenzy. When he was done with the five-minute speech to the students, there was a few cheers but mostly polite clapping, as if Donahue was an assemblyman making an appearance at a hardware store opening. If you walked by the same area 15 minutes after the speech you would have had no idea that it had happened. No buzz at all.
Bruce Pearl? He would have shown up at the pep rally with his shirt off and his body painted in maroon and gold. After using the students to bodysurf his way onto the podium, Pearl would have gone on a 20-minute rant in an effort to convince every last kid in attendance that they were about to witness the beginning of the first real dynasty in NCAA men's hoops since the days of John Wooden.
And for the first time since who knows when, there would have been buzz surrounding BC basketball.
Can you remember a time in the last, say, 25 years when BC hoops was this far off the radar in Boston sports? This time, more than ever, a splash was in order. The kind that would bump the Red Sox off the front page of the sports section for a day at least. The kind of hire that would mean a BC game was an event, a must watch. A return, at least, to the almost-relevancy of years past.
Bruce Pearl would have qualified. A proven winner with a huge personality leaving a top-20 job to come back to his alma mater. Instant credibility for the school the second he sets foot on campus as the coach.
This didn't happen, of course, because Bruce Pearl was never a candidate for the job at Boston College. The Sharon native and BC alum told athletic director Gene DeFilippo that he needed to stay at Tennessee and "wasn't interested."
But that was just the first phone call. Right, Gene? I mean, you aren't the type to give up that easily.
"It was kind of a long telephone call," DeFilippo said on Wednesday. "I've known Bruce about three or four years now, and so after he said he wasn't interested I asked him about some candidates because I really value his opinion." And that was that. One phone call. Huh. If it was me, I would have moved to Knoxville and planted myself on the front lawn of Pearl's house until he either A) finally accepted the job or B) got Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane and the rest of the authorities involved. And why would I make such an effort?
From my perspective, Pearl was the only Sure Thing that BC could have landed. The Eagles get him and they are in the top 20 annually. Why? The guy can coach. He has won everywhere. A 231-46 record with a national title at Division 2 Southern Indiana. Next stop was Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he had an 86-38 record, two NCAA appearances and a Sweet 16 berth (complete with a win over BC) in 2005. The Big Time then beckoned, and all he has done at Tennessee is make the NCAAs in each of his five seasons. Big school, small school, D1, D2, doesn't seem to matter. Pearl wins wherever he goes (despite falling victim to Saul Smith Disease and playing his kid last season. His son is Brett Szabo minus the talent.). No reason to think Boston College -- an ACC school, after all -- would be any different. Thus, the Sure Thing label.
After Pearl, though, any coach that BC would be able to hire would have more than one "Can he?" attached to his name. As in, "Can he recruit ACC players?" or "Can he deal with the academic standards" Stuff like that.
So I wondered if DeFilippo considered maybe taking a look at a wild card. Someone not on the average short list. Kicking the tires on a potential shocker. How could it hurt, right?
"I'll tell you two names that came to mind at one point were Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma both," DeFilippo told me. "I mean, you talk about great coaches. I thought about both of them."
Really? Well, Summitt would never leave Tennessee and Auriemma has made it clear that he has almost no interest in coaching men, much less leaving UConn. But I like the thinking. That is kicking the tires. Who did you call first? Did you tell one about the other?
Wait. Let's get this out of the way first, before we get to the good stuff. You did call them, didn't you? Gene?
"No. No I didn't. I thought about it, though."
Again, I don't think there is a 1-in-100 shot that either Summitt or Auriemma would ever leave their jobs for BC. But why not make a phone call? What is it with Gene and the phone, anyway? I'm not even suggesting that these two would absolutely be slam dunks even if they were interested in the job, but if you think they are "great coaches," don't you owe it to the school to make those calls? Maybe Auriemma is bored with the women's game and is looking for a challenge. Who knows?
Out with the Sure Thing and the Wild Cards.
That leaves us with the group of candidates that had been rumored for weeks, and Donahue is, frankly, probably the best of that group. No Al Skinner ties (goodbye to Tim O'Shea, Bill Coen and Ed Cooley) and no whiff of failure from a previous stint at a major conference school (Tommy Amaker). Donahue has a couple of "Can he's," but there is no question that he can win in a tough academic environment (hugely important to BC) and do so with a style of play (motion offense, a ton of 3-pointers, guys diving all over the floor on defense) that should be more eye-pleasing than the stale flex offense and occasional lackluster defense that proved to be the key to the demise of the Al Skinner era.
But can Boston College be a consistent top 15-20 team nationally? Will that ever happen, or should we just be happy with a lot of 18-12 seasons and a Sweet 16 berth every six or seven years?
"I don't think there is any reason why this school shouldn't compete at that level," Donahue said at his introductory press conference on Wednesday. "I want to build a team that can stay consistently at that level. I don't see why not."
I'm skeptical, and that's not a knock on Donahue. Boston College has a terrible fan base, less than ideal facilities and an athletic director who can rub people the wrong way. Plus, BC actually wants the term "student-athlete" to mean something more than a punchline for a Derrick Z. Jackson column. (Hard to believe, I know, but this is probably the biggest reason Pearl is still in Knoxville. Also hard to believe that a Derrick Z. Jackson column would have a punchline.) Throw in that they are still the weird uncle in the ACC and have zero basketball history (I'm talking about from the perspective of an 18-year-old recruit, who wouldn't be able to pick Michael Adams out of a lineup if it was just him and the Jonas Brothers) and you can understand why some coaches think a cushy mid-major job might be a better bet.
At the pep rally, Donahue mentioned that the only way would ever leave Cornell was for a "home run" kind of job. He would go on to describe BC as a "grand slam."
I would call the Donahue hire a standup double. A safe choice that may not have massive upside (let's remember that his career record at Cornell is 146-138) but will do enough to keep the car running.
That's how it goes when the Sure Thing says no.
Who knows? Maybe 25-win seasons and body surfing through crowds is overrated.