Coach of the Year?

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Last spring several Tennessee fans thought he'd be coach for a year. This spring some of the same people view him as Coach Of The Year.

Welcome to the weird world of Cuonzo Martin.

When Martin was hired to run the Big Orange basketball program last March, some fans actually predicted that predecessor Bruce Pearl would be back at the Vol helm once the completion of his NCAA show-cause penalty freed him to return to college coaching. Essentially, they viewed Martin as an interim coach who would oversee the program until Pearl served his penance.

When the NCAA hit Pearl with a three-year show cause last June, some of his staunchest supporters figured the Big Orange would muddle through three years under Martin before returning to glory under Pearl. This conviction grew stronger when Martin's 2011-12 Vols staggered to a 10-12 start that included a 2-5 SEC mark.

Now that Tennessee has won eight of nine games to finish the regular season 18-13 overall and 10-6 in SEC play, however, even the most skeptical fans realize that Cuonzo Martin isn't going anywhere. No longer seen as a temp hired to manage the office during Pearl's absence, Martin has firmly established himself as the man who will direct Tennessee's basketball future.

"I'd like to think the first day I took over I was the head coach of this program," he said recently. "Maybe some people on the outside didn't think that, didn't understand that.

"But, once I took over the program I was head coach of the program until I'm in a casket or whatever the case may be. It was understood. I didn't waver. When I took over the job I said one day we'd be the last team standing, and I meant that. Whoever is doubting, it doesn't matter."

Martin emphasized from Day One that he was a new coach implementing a new system and instituting a new culture. His message was clear: My way or the highway. During one preseason speaking engagement, he was asked how he was adjusting to his new players. His response: "It's their job to adjust to me."

After four years under Pearl, fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum knew accepting a new coaching regime would require some adjustments. He quickly decided he was willing to make those adjustments.

"I bought in the first individual workout," Tatum recalled. "I said: 'This is real. Wow!' I bought in because it was my last go-round and I didn't have much of a choice. I understood he's a guy with a lot of credentials and he's well respected, so why not listen to a guy like that?"

Not all of Tennessee's players listened as intently as Tatum, however. Some performed carelessly on offense and half-heartedly on defense. Some failed to play hard on a consistent basis and others failed to play smart on a consistent basis. The result was some growing pains that included a humiliating home-floor loss to an Austin Peay team that brought a 1-9 record into the game.

Martin was frustrated but not terribly surprised by the shaky start.

"I go back to the beginning," he said. "You've got a new coach, a new staff and a new system. We're changing the culture and defining what we expect. That's not an easy thing to do."

It wasn't an easy thing to do but it was the right thing to do. Gradually, the Vols realized their best chance to win was with hard-nosed defense and all-out hustle, not with fancy passes and long-range bombs. Sophomore point guard Trae Golden remembers the precise moment that lesson sank in.

"It was one day in practice," he recalled. "Everybody was for everybody else. It might have been around the Florida game on the road. Everybody was for everybody. We were worried about defending, asking questions that mattered. I think that's when we turned the corner."

Whenever it was that the Vols turned the corner, this much is clear: The program is stable and the future is bright. And, as a result, some people who once viewed Cuonzo Martin as coach for a year now view him as Coach Of The Year.

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