It was a sight that would have been unheard of just a couple of short years ago but there they were.
Hundreds of Tennesssee Volunteer basketball fans, most proudly wearing orange, streamed into the Fieldhouse at Mason County High School Tuesday evening.
The occasion was a visit from the leader of the Volunteer basketball program, the man who engineered a reversal in the fortunes of a program that had seen more than its share of coaching changes in recent years.
University of Tennessee Head Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl greeted an enthusiastic throng of Chris Lofton and UT basketball supporters on the court where the 2004 Kentucky Mr. Basketball performed during his illustrious prep career as a Mason County Royal.
Pearl, who led the Vols to the Southeastern Conference East Division title in his first year in Knoxville, entered the Fieldhouse to the strains of “Rocky Top” by the Mason County Pep Band and had the crowd in the palm of his hand from that point forward.
Pearl was greeted by a standing ovation and was almost speechless when he took his place at the podium.
“I am just overwhelmed and don’t know what to say,” Pearl said as he surveyed the crowd. “I’ve had a great day here today and it’s great to be in Loftonville.”
Pearl also deliverered some pleasing news to the Lofton fans when he told the crowd that “Chris was recently named the Athlete of the Year at the University of Tennessee.”
The main focus of his words naturally was Lofton.
“What is it about Chris that brought us here tonight?,” was the question Pearl posed to the audience. “Well, he is a good student, hard worker and was helped along the way by good coaches and parents. His mother, Kathleen, has been working with young people for over 20 years as a teacher, and his father, Frank, worked for the city for many years. If I didn’t get the chance to coach Chris, it would’ve been a big void in my life and he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay when the coaching change was first announced. But we talked and Chris wanted to win and he wanted to win at Tennessee. I told him we would never be outworked or outhustled. Thanks for letting me have Chris.”
Pearl also addressed his expectations of Lofton, who is regarded as the premier shooting guard in the nation and has been named preseason All-SEC and as a second team All-American.
“We will be asking Chris to do different things this year, he is working on driving to the basket more and getting to the free throw line,” Pearl noted. “He is also working hard on improving his defense and ballhandling skills. It is a blessing when your best player is also your hardest working player and Chris has already improved his quickness.”
During the question and answer session with the crowd, the enthusiastic coach complimented many of the queries as being “excellent questions.”
“Now I know how Tubby feels,” quipped Pearl at one point during the questioning.
He was presented with a necktie and the key to the city following his remarks by Mayor David Carmell and said he was “going to take the key back to Knoxville and give it to Chris and tell him it’s the key to the gym.”
He summarized his visit by mentioning Lofton and his parents, Kathleen and Frank, one final time.
“Thank you for having a guy like Chris, he is a special person and he appreciates your support very much,” said Pearl.