In spite of speculation, Bruce Pearl anticipates staying

KNOXVILLE, Tenn (AP) -- Bruce Pearl led Tennessee to its winningest season, a brief No. 1 ranking and a regular-season Southeastern Conference title in only his third year at the helm.

Let the speculation begin. With coaching vacancies cropping up around the country, Pearl almost certainly will draw some suitors.

Pearl, though, seems to want to stay at Tennessee.

"It's great to be a Tennessee Vol. I absolutely anticipate - if Tennessee will have me - being back at Tennessee. I think they'll have me,'' Pearl said after Thursday's 79-60 loss to Louisville in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

After last season's regional semifinal loss to Ohio State, Pearl's name was rumored as a candidate for the Kentucky job vacated by Tubby Smith.

Instead, Billy Gillispie was hired with a seven-year contract worth $2.3 million a year, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in college basketball.

Pearl's contract is worth $1.3 million a year and currently runs through 2013. It includes built-in salary increases, bonuses for postseason play and a "loyalty bonus'' of $500,000, should he stay at Tennessee through the 2009-10 season.

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said Friday afternoon he'd received no requests from other schools to interview Pearl for another head coaching position. He is confident Pearl will remain at Tennessee.

"He's done a tremendous job of representing Tennessee. He's been a great coach,'' Hamilton said. "We think this is just the beginning of a lot of excitement for Tennessee basketball.''

Athletic department spokeswoman Tiffany Carpenter said Hamilton and Pearl would hold formal contract talks some time in the next 30 days.

"We greatly value coach Pearl and everything he's done for the university and we will definitely make sure this is a place he wants to stay,'' she said.

The 48-year-old Pearl has spent his three seasons reviving a Tennessee program that had been withering for two decades and often played third fiddle - or worse - to the football and women's basketball programs.

Pearl has brought a showmanship that draws fans by resurrecting the style of bright orange blazer worn by legendary coach Ray Mears, painting his body orange for a Lady Vols game and showing up unannounced at campus cafeterias and pep rallies.

The renewed interest in Volunteer basketball was followed by a $20 million renovation of 20-year-old Thompson-Boling Arena and a new $16 million practice facility.

Fans bought up all of the 15,700 available season tickets this season. Attendance has grown each year in Pearl's tenure and averaged 20,267 this season.

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