On March 27th, 2011, Vol fans were introduced to the man who would be replacing Bruce Pearl, one of the most beloved coaches in Tennessee basketball history. Pearl compiled a 145-61 record while at UT, and he led the Vols to 6 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and the program’s only Elite Eight appearance.
Cuonzo Martin, the man hired on that day in March, was brought in to essentially be the anti-Pearl and restore a now-tarnished Big Orange image.
Pearl lied to the NCAA about recruiting violations he and his staff committed. Despite his act he committed now being legal under the new NCAA rules, it was still illegal at the time, and Pearl is still guilty of lying about what happened and attempting to cover it up. His guilt was too much for the NCAA to ignore, and they decided to make him an example, forcing UT to fire him once they were ousted in embarrassing fashion in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament by Michigan.
Following Pearl’s firing, the NCAA slapped a show-cause penalty on him that would prohibit him from coaching in the NCAA again until the 2014-15 season.
Pearl was famous for his energetic and impassioned coaching style, and his teams were known for their pressing defense and quicker style of offense. Martin was hired to bring in a calmer demeanor, one that would remove the Vols from the watchful eye of the NCAA. Martin brought with him a penchant for defense and a slower, half court style of offense.
From the beginning, Martin’s style of coaching was never really embraced by Vol fans. Those who had watched Pearl’s teams run up and down the court while competing for SEC titles (and win the SEC East in 2008) and reaching the only Elite Eight in program history were immediately dissatisfied with Martin.
Fans had grown accustomed to watching a man on the Tennessee sideline who was animated throughout the game. They fell in love with the man who wore his emotions on his sleeves during post-game interviews.
Martin never did that. Martin’s demeanor was much more reserved with the media, and while he did show passion on the sideline, fans never equated his emotion with Pearl’s. While there is nothing wrong with Martin’s preferred coaching style, it was apparent from the outset that he never truly fit in with Tennessee.
Then came the losses. Martin took a team gutted of talent after Pearl’s firing and helped them overachieve their way to an 18-14 regular season record and finished 2nd in the SEC after winning 8 of their last 9 games. Their play near the end of the season almost earned them an NCAA Tournament berth, but their efforts fell just short, and they settled for the NIT. They won one game and lost the next, finishing Martin’s inaugural season at 19-15.
The middle of Martin’s first season saw one of the biggest recruiting splashes in recent Vols basketball history when 5-star Memphis prospect Jarnell Stokes chose to play for the Vols. He joined them midway through the season, and his presence was immediately felt and would be vital in the next few years to come.
In Martin’s second season, expectations were elevated, and many fans expected a return to the NCAA Tournament. Stokes and fellow big man Jeronne Maymon were expected to terrorize the SEC with their power in the post, and Jordan McRae was supposed to continue his progression and turn into a prolific scorer.
While Stokes and McRae certainly progressed and looked like All-SEC performers, Maymon’s season never even started. A lingering knee injury kept keeping him away from the court, and Martin finally dispelled any hope of him returning about midway through the season. The Stokes-Maymon tandem was never to be that season, and the team’s chemistry was thrown off through the waiting period because nobody really knew what to expect.
Once again, the Vols had to overcome an extremely sluggish start and won 8 of their last 9 games in the regular season. They once again finished 2nd in the SEC in the regular season. Their efforts, again, were not rewarded with an NCAA berth, and the team looked disheartened and disinterested in an opening round NIT loss to Mercer. The Vols finished 20-13 that season.
Martin’s job appeared to be on the line heading into his third season, and many fans were growing tired of his style and his team’s slow starts. Fans had him on the hot seat, and Athletic Director Dave Hart said early in the season that the team’s goal was to reach the postseason. And by “postseason,” he certainly did not mean another NIT Tournament appearance.
No, it appeared Martin’s third season was NCAA or bust.
Following the uncomfortable trend his teams had established his first two years as head coach, the Vols plodded along to yet another slow start, and after an overtime loss to Texas A&M (the second loss to the same team in the same season), the Vols sat at 16-11 and seemed destined for mediocrity once more.
Throughout the season, disgruntled fans had grown louder and louder over their dissatisfaction with Martin, and an online petition to “Bring back Bruce” reached its peak after the second Texas A&M loss. The petition reached well over 30,000 signatures, and many more people lent their voices to the airwaves and message boards to detail their disapproval.
But then something happened. Something clicked for the Vols after that loss, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Vols won 5 of their last 6 regular season games, and they gave the No. 1 team in the country, Florida, all they could handle in a tough loss in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
This time, the Vols would not be heading to a disappointing NIT bid. But only barely.
The Vols were selected as one of the four teams to play in the NCAA Tournament’s “play-in games” as an 11 seed in the Midwest bracket, and they were to face Iowa to see who would ultimately be the 11 seed and face 6th seeded Massachussettes. Many fans scoffed at the game, saying the Vols were not truly even in the Tournament.
Regardless of how the game was perceived by fans, Martin and the Vols were glad to finally be back in the NCAA Tournament, and they took Iowa into overtime and dominated them there on their way to Raleigh to take on the Minutemen of UMass.
Vol fans were ecstatic after the victory, and it finally seemed like all the negative emotions of the last year and a half were beginning to dissipate. The Vols dispatched UMass and then Mercer on their way to the Sweet Sixteen and a rematch with Michigan, the team that ousted them in their last NCAA Tournament game in 2011.
Ultimately, the Vols came up a possession short, and a controversial charging call with 6 seconds left to play sealed the Vols fate, and they lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Wolverines. The Vols finished 24-13 and had by far the best season under Martin thus far.
The offseason started off on a positive note, as fans and players alike heaped praises upon Martin and the job the team did in coming together at the end of the season. But the pleasantries would soon sour with rumors and failed negotiations.
It started with a vacant job in Marquette. Martin was linked to the job opening, and many saw this as his way of being able to escape the scrutiny of Vol fans he had received in his three years as head coach.
But surprisingly, perhaps to many people, Martin took his name out of consideration for the job, and he and AD Dave Hart said in a joint statement on April 1st that they were going to work on Martin’s contract, and Martin stated (per ESPN) “Tennessee is where I want to be. That has never changed.”
Apparently, something changed in the two weeks after that statement.
It was announced on April 15th, a little over 3 years after Martin had been hired by the university to become its head coach, that Martin was leaving Tennessee to become the next head coach at the University of California. The move left Vol fans and media alike stunned, and yet another coach bolted from Tennessee to the beaches of California.
By comparison, Cuonzo’s sudden departure made Lane Kiffin’s looked planned.
Martin’s timing could not have been more detrimental for the program as a whole. Most coaches are locked up with a contract extension at power conference school after their most successful season in their tenure, especially if that season included an NCAA Tournament run. The only teams that typically lose their coaches after successful runs are mid major schools with little NCAA Tournament history.
I do not fault Martin for leaving one bit, however. His stock has never been higher as a coach, and his stock was only going to take a hit this upcoming season after losing over 71 percent of his offense in Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, and Antonio Barton.
Not only that, but wouldn’t you want to escape a job where you never felt welcome and had over 30,000 people clamoring for the man you replaced to come back?
Martin’s tenure will be characterized by slow starts, sub-par recruiting as a whole, and a defensive style that left the offense moving more like a Big Ten team. While Martin achieved some success in his third and final year, he was never truly embraced by fans, and he moves on to the west coast to begin a new chapter of his coaching career.
Meanwhile, UT is left with another vacant coaching position and more questions than answers. Sound familiar?