Just a few hours before he led the Volunteers in their win over UF, the University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl sported a yarmulke that read, "It's Great to be a Jewish Gator."

Pearl was the guest of honor at the Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center March 5 as the first speaker in the center's Jewish Heritage Program, which aims to unite Jewish professionals with young members of the faith.

Rabbi Berl Goldman, the center's co-director, contacted Pearl through a colleague in Knoxville and asked him to speak.

"He identifies himself as a proud Jew, and that's why we selected him," said Goldman.

Pearl spoke about his experiences as a Jewish athlete and coach, and took questions from an audience of more than 70 about his faith, personality and childhood.

After growing up in the Boston area, Pearl attended Boston College, one of the oldest Catholic universities in the country. He said that while he was there, he tried to break down stereotypes of Jews in athletics and stay strong in his faith while surrounded by those of a different creed.

He was complimentary of UF throughout, calling the Gators' back-to-back national titles in basketball "one of the greatest stories in the history of intercollegiate athletics" and coach Billy Donovan the best in the sport. Pearl was quick to form a bond with the students in attendance, posing for pictures and exchanging contact information with them afterward.

"I think he's a wonderful man," said UF freshman Remy Horesh. "He spoke beautifully about so many different things, and he made it really warm in this room. He was a great speaker to jumpstart this program that we're trying to lift off the ground here."

Pearl said he felt a responsibility to speak at the gathering despite his team's game that night.

"If I'm going to talk the talk, I have to walk the walk," he said. "I'm in a position where maybe I can affect some young people positively. If they have a better day today because of something that was said that they could connect with, it was well worth it."

Jonathan Hack, a UF sophomore and student director of the Jewish Heritage Program, said the program will invite at least one more speaker this semester and could have as many as one per month next year. After the ceremony, Goldman assisted Pearl in donning tefillin, a tradition for Jewish men during prayer.

"Gators by 1 point," Goldman predicted before they embraced.

On an afternoon filled with pleasantries and where former enemies became friends, Pearl said he didn't expect the lovey-dovey attitude to last long.

"Does it make it more difficult for the Jewish students at Florida to hate me because I came here? Yeah, it probably makes it a little more difficult," said Pearl. "They have to hate me a little bit because I'm at Tennessee."

"That's the way we roll."