ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl recalls 2008 Atlanta tornado, the subject of new SEC Storied documentary, Miracle 3

ESPN Films’ next SEC Storied documentary, Miracle 3, will premiere on Sunday, March 3, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

The film, directed by Rory Karpf, chronicles the dramatic events that ensued after a tornado hit downtown Atlanta during the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Georgia Dome.

On March 14, 2008, Alabama trailed Mississippi State 59-56 in the final seconds of the first quarterfinal game of the evening session. Crimson Tide guard Mykal Riley sank a last-second three-pointer as time expired, sending the game into overtime. That shot not only extended Alabama’s season for the moment, but it might have prevented thousands of fans from pouring into the city streets just as the tornado touched down.

ESPN college basketball analyst Bruce Pearl was the head coach at the University of Tennessee at the time and was in Atlanta with his team. Front Row asked Pearl to reflect on the experience.

ESPN’s Bruce Pearl.
(Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

Where were you when the tornado hit?
Our players were at the hotel and we were going through a walk through in the hotel in a very open area with a large glass ceiling. All of a sudden, everything just got darker and it sounded like a freight train was running right through the hotel. I just immediately got the players away from the glass ceiling. My first thought was that it was an earthquake, it felt like the building was moving a little bit. And then we all just huddled up and listened, crouched down and waited it out.

Were you surprised at the extent of the damage after it was over?
I didn’t let the guys out of the hotel that night. We wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to contact their families. Once the storm ended, we put on ESPN and we heard there was a [tornado] and that there was damage to the Dome. We didn’t know if the tournament was going to go on or what was going to happen.

What were you thinking when you found out your game was being moved to Georgia Tech?
Tennessee has had a lot of success in the SEC in basketball but we hadn’t had a lot of success in the SEC tournament, historically. So we finally get to that Saturday — the semi-final round — we’ve got a lot of fans there Friday and half of Vol Nation driving down [Highway] 75 South to come watch us play Saturday and they had to cancel their trips. What took place was lots of meetings, lots of logistical scenarios on how to move forward with the process. And obviously when it was determined we could go play at Georgia Tech then [we found out] each team would only get 100 or 200 tickets and we had to select family and donors and that was it.

How difficult was the change for you, your staff and team?
Our concern was with the damage done to Atlanta. We were aware of what a blessing it was that the game went to OT and there weren’t thousands of people in the streets when that thing blew through. I was just very impressed with the NCAA and SEC leadership and how they handled the crisis: very businesslike and very sensitive to all parties. And I think they did the best that they could given a very difficult situation and timetable.

ESPN.com college football/basketball writer Mark Schlabach was also in Atlanta that year. He recalled the events with ESPN’s Jim Basquil.

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