After Martin’s surprise exit, Tennessee basketball faces crucial hire

Knoxville News-SentinelApril 18, 2014 

— Cuonzo Martin was not Bruce Pearl.

Now the joke is on Tennessee.

Ridiculous petition.

Good for Cuonzo.

I’m sure you’ve run across all of the above if you’ve been reading the national reaction to Cuonzo Martin’s Tuesday flight to California.

Yep, both Tennessee and its fan base are taking a flogging in the media again. This time the forum is basketball, not football.

I’m not saying the flogging is undeserved. It mostly is and it stings.

But the sting doesn’t have to last. This divorce can still be a win-win for both parties.

It already is a win for Martin. He got out of a job he no longer wanted to be in, regardless of what he said April 1. He starts fresh at Cal-Berkeley, a prestigious school in a power conference where they think Bruce Pearl is just another talking head on ESPN.

It can still be a win for Tennessee if athletic director Dave Hart makes the right hire.

More about that in a minute.

When Hart and Martin jointly announced April 1 that a new contract would be forthcoming, it signaled that Martin would be at Tennessee for at least another season.

Let me tell you, it was going to be an awkward season.

Hart and Martin weren’t about to hike Mt. LeConte and roast marsh mellows. You weren’t going to spot them rafting the Ocoee some July afternoon.

It’s too strong to say the Martin-Tennessee relationship was doomed. But it was going to take some work that I’m not sure either party was fully committed to doing.

Martin is a good man and a pretty fair coach, judging by his work at Missouri State and Tennessee. He deserved more support than he got here, from both the fans and his administration.

The Pearl business wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault – except for the petition, a delusional exercise of wasted time. But it was there and it was unfortunate.

Had Martin stayed, he faced rebuilding. It would be all his roster but one with holes to account for.

Who’s to say that by January there wouldn’t be another petition to bring back the late Ray Mears.

Martin could have done more to embrace UT. Hart could have done more to embrace Martin. But, well, on with the coaching search.

In the coming days Hart will hire a coach who wants to be at Tennessee. It will also be a coach whom Hart wants to be at Tennessee. It will be his guy just like Butch Jones is.

That’s a step in the right direction.

But it’s not enough. The next coach has to realize the program’s potential while generating a decent level of consensus among the ticket-buying public.

Tennessee is, in spite of the current bashing, one of the SEC’s better jobs. There’s Kentucky and Florida (thanks, Billy Donovan). Then there’s UT, Missouri and Arkansas, all good jobs with ample resources, a decent hoops history and a hungry statewide following.

Most of UT’s past searches have a common theme: gamble on an up-and-comer who won’t break the bank. This is the first men’s basketball search on Hart’s watch. Maybe he'll take a different approach.

Maybe he'll follow the recent examples of Auburn and Virginia Tech and pay big bucks for a headline coach. That’s what it would take to pry Gregg Marshall out of Wichita.

In reality, UT isn’t likely to get Marshall. That doesn’t mean it can’t get a win to match Martin’s win.

Martin has his fresh start. Now it’s up to Hart to capitalize on Tennessee’s fresh start.

Hire a guy who can, in time, prove that the joke’s not on Tennessee any more.

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