Who Is This Man? A Frantic March Meditation

Joy? Outrage? Crucifixion? Palm branches?

And why is he so happy? (Is this happiness or madness?) Why do the people around him love him so much? (They do not know him, not really, but what they do know is good enough, thanks, and shut up, a–hole!)

Let’s say you don’t know who he is. Okay. Where is he? Who are these people? Why the outrageous joy? (Or is it Madness™? See, now I’m giving things away.) It’s a delirious Prodigal-Son-style homecoming, but they’ve never met the guy.

Does he look like a guide for the impressionable young? Did you think, Aha, no doubt! This man is an educator. (Did you really think that?) Well, he is. If the NCAA is full of “student-athletes” – and it is – then this is a teacher-mentor-rabbi-leader-cheerleader-huckster-salesman. He is a college basketball coach, and he is really good at what he does.

His name is Bruce Pearl.

What is he doing? In this photo, from a couple of days before the March Madness™ of the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Tournament began, Mr. Pearl is arriving at the airport at Auburn University in Alabama. They play great football there. He has come to show them how to win in basketball, too. (They are a national collegiate power in men’s swimming and diving, but who gives a s–t?) They have come to show him they believe. (I’m sure there are folks at Auburn who turn up their noses in boredom or even deep dismay, but who gives a s–t about them?)

The airport was full of very excited people wearing orange and blue. They were excited because Bruce Pearl wins basketball games, and Americans really like it when their university is good at winning games on television, and he is also one heck of a lot of fun, too. But mainly he wins basketball games like few coaches ever have in the pepped-up universe of American college hoops. There you go.

Tennessee “Vols” (he’s the V, here baring it all at a women’s game). They loved him for the winning, and for the flamboyant support of women’s hoops. Oh, college!

Pearl hasn’t coached since 2011. The University of Tennessee, another Southeastern Conference football-crazy institution of higher learning, fired him for sleazy recruiting practices. They had to: Pearl had become a stink-bomb of NCAA indignation, and even though men’s basketball had suddenly become brilliantly successful and a bandwagon everybody in orange-and-white absolutely had to jump on, the NCAA has ways to make a university think twice about its winning.

Bruce Pearl can wear all those orange-themed ties again.

At Tennessee, where Creamsicle is the favourite frozen treat, young black athletes look absolutely sensational in bright orange. Coach Pearl could pull it off, too. I envy him that.

I envy his winning, too, and how much attention and acclaim he gets for it. I like winning. I love basketball and coaching and leadership and dreams. (I love John Wooden, the icon of sturdy principle and superb teaching and noble leadership, yes, and maybe the beneficiary of some of the early rot in the U.S. collegiate sport universe.) I love winning, too, but maybe not as much as the people in that first big photo. Maybe this is my problem, or one of them.

Bruce Pearl, the manager for his college basketball team when he was a student, got hired to coach in the NCAA Division 2 ranks. He won like crazy. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee played terrible D1 ball, so they hired him. They won like crazy, made a Sweet 16 for cryin’ out loud, a team I watched and got behind and admired. They were huge underdogs but they played hard and together and holy cow. I was a fan. Next year, the

Coolest middle-aged Jewish guy on campus.

Tennessee Volunteers. Another rung. Even before his recruiting mojo started to suddenly bring A-list high-schoolers to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they hadn’t gone before, Pearl was winning like crazy. Elite Eight. Number One in the Country. Tennessee! Number One!? In something other than football or the (Pat) Summit of women’s basketball? Really, it was unbelievable. Unbelievable.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that McMurphy’s won, but I’m not sure what.”

That’s the Chief, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Remember? (And hey, the Milos Forman/Jack Nicholson film was GREAT, but man oh man, read the original Ken Kesey novel. Brilliant. Angry. HellFunny.) An insane asylum? The guy who makes the system work for him until the Big Nurse has her way with him? Can we call the NCAA “Big Nurse”? And did you ever think McMurphy Coach Pearl could come back from that dose of electro-shock therapy three-year coaching ban? Didn’t you think he’d be a TV guy and regional-product pitchman for the rest of his career? (Did you even know about Bruce Pearl, oh sane ones?)

Two crazy people.

Big Chief Broom: “You’re always… winning things!”

R.P. McMurphy: “Winning things! You damned moose, what are you accusin’ me of? All I do is hold up my end of the deal. Now what’s so all-fired—”

Chief: “We thought it wasn’t to be winning things…”

McMurphy: “Winning, for Christsakes,” he said with his eyes closed. “Hoo boy, winning.”

Okay. There’s a lot to be said about winning and losing and where all that leads us. Hoo boy, winning. It’s a strange phenomenon, and so are sports in general, and wildly so is American college basketmania in particular, but I love it, and listen, the pep bands are

Showtime. Creamsicle, baby, but this one won’t be coming out of the closet again.

playing, and the arena’s rocking, and man, that kid can sky, and roundball coaches are heroic and good and curse me, bless me, but I want to watch me some Madness™. We won’t be hearing the Auburn “War Eagle” chant, or hear their brass band blaring in burnt orange and blue, but we will be, friends, we will be. By 2017, latest. Bruce Pearl is back, which says a lot about him and about big-money sport and the Auburn Tigers and the delirious faithful to whom he is Hope and Glory and Significance and High Rankings To Come. It’s amazing.

But enough. The siren is calling, and I think I’m going to answer. Time to watch some madness if my Internet will hold. If not, I’ll be reading about my favourite colours, and finding out how the Canadian kids are doing, and generally loving the game, again and still and maybe always, and trying not to think too hard. Hoo boy, thinking.

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