To understand Cuonzo Martin you have to understand the situation he inherited:
Whoever followed enormously-popular Bruce Pearl at Tennessee in 2011 was facing a monumental challenge. Pearl took a program that had missed the NCAA Tournament four years in a row and made The Dance six years in a row. He was a colorful carnival barker who entertained fans with his on-court and off-court histrionics and his genius for marketing. He brought excitement to a program that barely had a pulse when he arrived. He guided Tennessee to a brief reign atop the national rankings in 2008 and an unprecedented Elite Eight berth in 2010. Even after he admitted lying to NCAA investigators about minor recruiting violations in the fall of 2010 he remained wildly popular with most of the fan base.
Once Pearl was fired following the 2010-11 season many fans wanted Tennessee to hire a Pearl clone. Instead, they got his polar opposite. Cuonzo Martin is a quiet, low-key guy who prefers to let his accomplishments speak for him. Because Tennessee was still facing possible NCAA sanctions, Martin's first signing class was understandably weak ... even by spring-signing period standards. The following November -- when he still hadn't coached a game for the Vols -- he settled for signing a couple more marginal prospects.
Pearl's final team lost by 30 to Michigan in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament to finish 19-15, then saw its two best players -- freshman Tobias Harris and junior Scotty Hopson -- declare for the NBA Draft. The departures of Harris and Hopson, coupled with the loss of four key seniors, left Cuonzo to open the 2011-12 season with Cameron Tatum (8.8 points per game) as his leading returning scorer. After a 10-12 start, Martin rallied the team to eight wins in its last nine regular-season games and an 18-13 record. The Vols lost their SEC Tournament opener and their second-round game in the NIT to finish 19-15, matching the record Pearl posted a year earlier with Harris and Hopson.
The Vols were supposed to be much better in 2012-13 but star power forward Jeronne Maymon missed the entire season with knee problems. The team went 20-13 but barely missed the NCAA Tournament field, and the grumbling about Cuonzo Martin began. It grew louder when he lost a first-round NIT game to Mercer on Tennessee's home floor.
With three seniors and two juniors starting, Tennessee was supposed to be a Sweet Sixteen-caliber team in 2013-14. The Vols stumbled out of the starting gate for the third year in a row, however, prompting 36,000 fans to sign an on-line petition saying Tennessee should reconsider hiring Pearl, whose three-year NCAA show-cause penalty expires in August. Typically classy, Martin declined to respond to his critics. Standing 16-11 overall (7-7 in SEC play) as of Feb. 22, the team finally jelled, winning eight of its next nine games (average margin 20.9 points) with the only loss coming to top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament semifinals. The run ended with a 73-71 loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen.
Two days after the Sweet Sixteen thriller, Martin met with Marquette officials about their coaching vacancy. I knew right then he was leaving Tennessee if a suitable offer came along. He is a very proud man and, despite his comments to the contrary, the on-line petition and all of the grumbling had taken a toll on him. When the UT administration offered a contract that would leave him ranking eighth or ninth among SEC coaches in salary (even though he ranked third in winning percentage during his three-year tenure), Cuonzo probably felt under-appreciated.
No wonder. Some fans will never forgive him for not being Bruce Pearl, and the administration's support always seemed somewhat conditional.
I have mixed feelings about his departure. I have tremendous respect for him as a man. I believe he is as honest as anyone in the profession and I believe he would never cheat. I cannot imagine him bending the rules to sign or keep a prospect. He appears to treat his players the way he treats his own sons, respectfully but firmly. Several players matured tremendously under his guidance. My dealings with him were always business-like but cordial. I will miss him on that score.
On the other hand, I'm happy to see him leave because I'm sure it must be frustrating when a good segment of your fan base still longs for your predecessor. I wrote a story on our website about a blind date I had years ago with a young woman who spent most of our visit talking about the guy she dated previously. Realizing she wasn't over him, I ended the relationship. I compared that blind date to Cuonzo Martin's relationship with Tennessee fans, many of whom still aren't over Bruce Pearl. That, in my mind, is why Martin ended his relationship with the Vols. Neither the fans nor the administration made him feel appreciated.
Based on the erratic performances his Tennessee teams gave the past three years, I cannot say I consider Cuonzo Martin a great coach. The jury's still out, in my opinion. I can say I consider him a great man. I have no doubt that he will represent the University of California with dignity and integrity. I wish him all the best.
Tennessee insider Talks Martin
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