ESPN draws crowds, adds atmosphere to Vanderbilt-Tennessee games

Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 6:56pm
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University of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was absent but obviously not forgotten Saturday when the Volunteers hosted Vanderbilt in a men's and women's basketball doubleheader.

KNOXVILLE – Carrie Fry expected more.

Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis, on the other hand, liked what they saw.

Regardless of one’s perception, there was no question Thompson-Boling Arena was the place to be on Saturday. That’s exactly where all three — and thousands more — assembled as the Vanderbilt and Tennessee men’s and women’s basketball teams played in a same-site doubleheader, the first between the two programs since 1986.

ESPN’s College Gameday was there to witness and hype it, as the network’s crew arrived on Friday for its first on-location show of the year. Bilas and Davis, both basketball analysts for ESPN, along with Digger Phelps and Rece Davis, went on the air at 10 a.m. (EST) Saturday — two hours before the noon tip-off for the men’s game. They also came back on the air an hour before the women’s game, which was at 8 p.m.

“This is the second time we have come here to Knoxville and it is just great,” Davis said. “That is what makes our show fun when fans and students show up at the show and show their enthusiasm for their school and athletic programs. That is why we come here. It just makes our job so much more enjoyable.”

Fry, however, thought the turnout could have been better.

The Vanderbilt senior spent the entire day in Knoxville as she headed up the trip for the Vandy Fanatics, a student spirit organization. The group of 50 left Vanderbilt on a bus at 5 a.m. (CST) and wasn’t expecting to get back to Nashville until around midnight.

When Gameday has visited other college campuses, the set is usually has been laid out on the court. At Thompson-Boling, however, it was in one corner of the arena, raised above the floor in the stands.

Fry thought that was because the men’s game started less than two hours after Gameday went on air. Thus, the court needed to be available for the teams to warm up and practice. She thought the move affected the atmosphere.

The two sections surrounding the Gameday set were full but the student section, which is directly behind one of the baskets, appeared to have room for plenty more.

“We were expecting a bigger turnout [Saturday] morning for College Gameday,” Fry, a child development major from Lebanon, said. “I was expecting an atmosphere very similar to that — just electric, on fire. I have seen College Gameday basketball-wise at Kentucky, at Duke, at North Carolina. I was kind of expecting that same sort of atmosphere here. So when we walked in this morning and there were 100 [Tennessee] students here, we were actually pretty disappointed.”

There was still a buzz in Thompson-Boling, a lot of it surrounding one person who could not attend: Bruce Pearl. The Tennessee men’s basketball coach was serving the third game of his eight-game suspension by the Southeastern Conference for violating NCAA recruiting rules.

Pearl is prohibited from participating in any team activities on the day of the game. Still, there were signs of him everywhere.

Gameday dedicated a lengthy segment to Pearl’s rise and fall. (The network most likely would have brought him on set but because of the suspension could not. Women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt did show up to talk to ESPN’s Doris Burke and Davis.) Tennessee fans held signs that read “Free Bruce” and “Bruce Pearl is Still My Homeboy.” There were blown-up Pearl heads on a stick everywhere and even a full-body Pearl cardboard cutout. In fact, when Tennessee students started to chant “Let’s Play Football” during the Gameday before the men’s game, the Vandy Fanatics responded with a “Where’s Your Coach?” chant.

He wasn’t there but his children were. Pearl’s son, Steven, a senior guard, played eight minutes off the bench in Tennessee’s 67-64 win over Vanderbilt. Pearl’s daughter, Jacqui, sang the national anthem. Associate head coach Tony Jones, who is substituting for Pearl during the suspension, even borrowed Pearl’s orange blazer to wear during the game.

But the actual Bruce Pearl, the man who breathed life into an average program and led it to the Elite Eight last year, was nowhere to be found.

“I’m not in the locker room but I don’t see how it couldn’t affect them,” Bilas said. “There is no way it doesn’t affect them when your head coach isn’t there for games.”

If the arena felt empty without the high-energy Pearl, it was very lively and well-attended when the games got underway.

The men’s game drew a season-high attendance of 21,198 and the women’s contest drew its largest crowd in nearly three seasons, with 17,583 fans.

“I can’t put into words how awesome it was to have two games,” Davis said. “It is just really neat. It kind of reminded me of Kentucky. We had a Gameday in the morning — sold out — and then they had the men’s game and it was sold out. There were different people for that game. I don’t think this was the same crowd that was here for the noon game so it just shows their passion, not only for football but for basketball — men and women.”