A Jewish coach has guided the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team to its first No. 1 ranking.
The Volunteers led by Bruce Pearl, who has been vocal about his Judaism, on Monday ascended to the top spot of the The Associated Press writers’ poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll after defeating the previously top-ranked and undefeated University of Memphis, 66-62, on Saturday night.
Tennessee, now 25-2, had been ranked second entering the game against Memphis, 26-1.
Pearl, who will be inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame on June 8, in November addressed the opening plenary at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, introducing himself as “Mordechai Shmuel.” “I am Jewish and I am proud,” he told the crowd there before describing how he often found it difficult growing up as an athlete who was Jewish — particularly when his teams would pray before games. “And at the end of this beautiful prayer they would say, ‘and in Jesus’ name we pray,’ and somehow I got left out of that. I wanted to be a part of that prayer,” Pearl said. “So when half my friends would cross themselves, to be included, I made the Star of David.”