MILAN - From the second he arrived Monday in Milan for the first stop of this year's Big Orange Caravan, Bruce Pearl heard the pleas from University of Tennessee fans.
"I've never been thanked as much as I have today for keeping my shirt on," said UT's head men's basketball coach. He earned national headlines in January for cheering shirtless in the student section during a Lady Vols basketball game.
"I'm going to keep my shirt on, but the 'Vols' is still painted on my chest," he said.
Much to the relief of a sell-out crowd of orange-clad West Tennesseans, Pearl kept his word and just signed autographs along with UT women's basketball coach Pat Summitt and Vols football coach Phillip Fulmer. They attended a 7:30 a.m. breakfast in the First Baptist Church gymnasium.
Summitt, who wore an orange cheerleader uniform and sang "Rocky Top" in support of the UT men's basketball team during a home game in March, also played it cool. The former Tennessee Martin basketball standout left her cheerleader uniform at home in favor of an orange blazer.
Instead of wasting all day talking about her wardrobe, Summitt spent most of her time discussing the Lady Vols, who won the program's first national title in nine years last week with a 59-46 victory over Rutgers. Summitt also shared what she told her players during a timeout facing a 12-point deficit against North Carolina in the national semifinals.
"I looked at each one of them and screamed 'We're not leaving here without a national championship,'" said Summitt, who has won more games (947) than any other coach in college basketball history and more national titles (seven) than any women's coach. "And we didn't."
Pearl had nothing but kind words for Summitt, a Hall-of-Famer who is the only person to have two courts used by NCAA Division I basketball teams named in her honor (UT Martin and UT). Summitt has coached the Lady Vols for 33 years.
"How about those Lady Vols?" Pearl said. "Pat keeps setting the bar so high."
Pearl, though, has done OK in his own right, taking the UT men's basketball team to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two seasons. The Vols advanced to the "Sweet 16" this season before falling to eventual runner-up Ohio State. They finished with the second-most wins (24) in school history.
They lose senior Dane Bradshaw to graduation, but expect junior Chris Lofton to return after averaging 20.8 points per game.
Pearl credited a lot of this season's success to a recruiting class that included three top-50 recruits in Ramar Smith, Duke Crews and Bolivar graduate Wayne Chism.
Chism, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward/center, became a starter midway through the season and finished as UT's top-rebounder (5.2 per game) and fourth-leading scorer (9.1 points per game). Despite his size, Chism showed an ability to step out and hit shots from the perimeter, making 26 3-pointers this season.
Pearl said Chism is capable of expanding his game next season.
"Offensively, I think you'll continue to see him face the basket more and more," Pearl said. "I think his game is going to continue to evolve, and his body is going to get bigger, stronger and more flexible."
Speaking of recruits, Pearl said he always knows what kind of players to expect from West Tennessee, known for its run-and-gun style.
"There's no question West Tennessee is where most of the best high school basketball is being played," Pearl said. "We're trying to play West Tennessee basketball in East Tennessee. I know if I get a player from out this way, there's not going to be a big adjustment."
Fulmer, who has been head coach of UT football since 1992, is also familiar with West Tennessee athletes, having coached area products such as Chad Clifton and Justin Harrell from Martin and Al Wilson, Trey Teague and Jabari Greer from Jackson.
Coming off a 9-4 season and an appearance in the Outback Bowl, the Vols added another area standout in this year's recruiting class in Huntingdon linebacker Chris Donald. Fulmer's mention of Donald drew cheers during Monday's breakfast. Donald is a Parade and USA Today All-American, who is rated the nation's top linebacker by Rivals.com.
"I don't know if they were cheering because he's coming to Tennessee or because they don't have to play against him again," said Fulmer, still unsure whether Donald will play or redshirt next fall. "He does bring a level of ability we're looking for and we do have a need for his immediate service. He has tremendous instincts that you can build on."