Breaking up is hard to do

InsideTennessee gives you great opinion, as well as great coverage of Vol sports. Check out this opinion piece on the departure of basketball coach Cuonzo Martin:

Breakups are tough. Sometimes, though, it's better to cut your losses, cite irreconcilable differences and stop wasting your time and energy fighting to preserve a doomed relationship.

Cuonzo Martin clearly reached that conclusion Tuesday morning, when he decided to leave Tennessee's basketball program to become head man at California. Abandoning a relationship is painful but it appears likely that this move will prove beneficial for all parties concerned.

Martin benefits in that he no longer must operate in the shadow of popular predecessor Bruce Pearl. Many fans won't be happy with anyone other than Pearl running the program. Many more won't be happy with anyone running the program who lacks Pearl's dynamic approach to recruiting and marketing. Telling Martin to be more like Pearl is like telling a deer to be more like a grizzly bear. You can't go against your nature.

Athletics director Dave Hart benefits because he no longer employs a coach he was being pressured to fire this spring and probably would've been pressured to fire next spring. Fans dissatisfied with 24 wins and a Sweet 16 berth from a veteran team in 2014 are sure to be even more dissatisfied with lesser accomplishments from a younger team in 2015. The new coach, whoever he is, will have a two-year honeymoon. That's a two-year honeymoon for Hart, as well.

Cuonzo Martin's detractors benefit because they figure his replacement surely will do better on the recruiting front and in pre-conference action. Signing unheralded prospects in November and losing to unheralded opponents in December is not a good way to win friends and influence people in Big Orange basketball. Cuonzo Martin learned that the hard way.

Martin's supporters benefit because they recognize that all of the adversities above were left behind when he boarded the flight from Knoxville to Berkeley Tuesday morning. In the best interest of his family and his own happiness, leaving Tennessee was the right call.

Face it: Following Bruce Pearl was going to be difficult no matter who accepted the job. After all, Pearl took a program that had missed four consecutive NCAA Tournaments and promptly went to The Dance six years in a row. He guided Tennessee to a brief stint as college basketball's top-ranked team in 2008 and to an unprecedented Elite Eight appearance in 2010. He signed high-profile recruits and he entertained fans with his on-court and off-court histrionics.

When Pearl was fired following the 2010-11 season for lying to NCAA investigators about some minor recruiting violations, fans wanted the replacement to be a Pearl clone. Instead, Tennessee gave them a polar opposite. Cuonzo Martin had never been ranked No. 1, had never been to an Elite Eight. Heck, he had never been to an NCAA Tournament. Except for Jarnell Stokes and Robert Hubbs, he signed mostly obscure prospects during his time at Tennessee. And his personality could not be more low-key, as six years of head coaching without a single technical foul suggests.

Because he essentially was the anti-Pearl, Martin was never embraced by many fans. And, because Tennessee's fans had reservations about the coach, Tennessee's athletics director had reservations about the future. That's why Dave Hart offered a two-year extension, a $500,000 raise to $1.8 million per year and a reduced buyout. Despite the third-best three-year record among SEC coaches behind Florida's Billy Donovan and Kentucky's John Calipari, Martin's pay would fall eighth or ninth among the league's head men.

Imagine it's Tuesday morning, and you are Cuonzo Martin trying to decide whether or not you should stay at Tennessee:

If your team hadn't squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as one of the "last four in," you might have been fired a month ago. Maybe, as some have speculated, you also had to win a first-round game to save your job.

A vocal segment of your fan base wishes your predecessor was still the coach.

A larger segment of your fan base will be grumbling "Here we go again" if Tennessee gets off to a slow start in 2014-15, even with a young and unproven roster.

You just led your team to the Sweet 16, yet your job status still appears somewhat shaky.

Despite the SEC's third-best record over the past three years, the terms of your new contract – had you accepted it – would rank in the bottom half of the league.

Based on Tennessee's spectacular play this March, it's understandable that Cuonzo Martin thought he deserved more support from the fan base and the administration. Based on sketchy recruiting and three slow starts in three seasons, it's understandable that Dave Hart took a conservative approach in contract negotiations.

Ultimately, the negotiations stalled but the jet to Berkeley didn't.

Speaking at a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Hart basically summarized the whole Cuonzo Martin situation in one sentence:

"I think fit is critically important, and we will look for someone who we deem to be a very good fit."

Ultimately, Cuonzo Martin is a fine man who never quite fit in Knoxville … mostly because he was nothing like the man he followed. He lacked Bruce Pearl's flamboyant personality. He lacked Pearl's zest for marketing. He lacked Pearl's knack for luring "name" recruits. He lacked Pearl's high profile.

That doesn't mean Bruce Pearl is the only "fit" for Tennessee, of course. It simply means that the right fit probably needs to be closer to Pearl than Martin in terms of personality, marketing, recruiting and profile. If Dave Hart can find such a guy and hire him, the 2014-15 season could be idyllic:

Cuonzo Martin will be enjoying his honeymoon in Berkeley.

Tennessee's new coach will be enjoying his honeymoon in Knoxville.

Dave Hart will be hearing few complaints from the fan base … unless, of course, Bruce Pearl's Auburn team beats the Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena.


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