David Climer: Cuonzo Martin-UT split was inevitable

Enough of the self-righteous indignation about how Tennessee's fans ran off Cuonzo Martin.

Give it a rest. If ever there was a coach who was ready and willing to be run off, it was Martin.

UT basketball is a solid program with quality facilities and a competitive salary. If you can't handle the pressure and expectations that come with it, I guess it's time to move on to … Cal-Berkeley?

Let that sink in for a moment: Martin left a two-year contract extension and a half-million dollar raise on the table so he can coach at Cal, where a team that went 15-4 at home managed to fill about two-thirds of the seats at 11,877-season Haas Pavilion this season.

To say he wanted out is an understatement. Martin took the first reasonable opportunity that presented itself. He tried to get the Marquette job last month but removed his name from consideration when it became clear Steve Wojciechowski had the inside track.

After that development, Martin released a statement on April 1 – yes, April Fools' Day – reaffirming his commitment to UT. "Tennessee is where I want to be," he said. "That has never changed."

But it changed on Tuesday morning.

Look, this parting of the ways was going to happen sooner or later, so why not sooner? Martin was never going to be comfortable coaching in the shadow of Bruce Pearl. Many UT fans were never going to be comfortable with any coach other than Pearl. It was time for everybody to move on.

Yes, it puts UT athletics director Dave Hart in a bind. The last time UT faced an 11th-hour coaching change like this – albeit with a different athletics director – the Vols wound up with Derek Dooley as football coach. That didn't work out so well, as I recall.

Even if this weren't such bad timing, Hart would have a challenge on his hands. The college basketball coaching community is a fairly tight fraternity. There is a perception out there that Tennessee is a job best avoided.

Why? The shadow of Pearl remains. University leadership is weak. The returning roster is short on SEC talent.

True, true and true. Any other concerns?

But that doesn't mean UT can't hire a quality coach. The profession is full of egomaniacs who believe they can overcome these and other obstacles. The challenge is identifying the right egomaniac and paying him enough to make the move.

As for a potential replacement, they'll round up the usual suspects. Hart owes it to himself and the fans to make a call to Gregg Marshall if only because two of Hart's predecessors at UT, Doug Dickey and Mike Hamilton, interviewed him for previous vacancies but decided he wasn't good enough.

Since his total package at Wichita State is about $2 million annually, would Marshall listen if he were offered, say, $2.75 million? Maybe. If money is no object, it wouldn't hurt to ask. But money is always an object, particularly when it comes to basketball at UT.

As for Martin, he simply grew tired of the fight. He didn't talk about it publicly but he was deeply troubled by the Bring Back Bruce petition and other references to his predecessor. During his comments to the media on Tuesday, Hart acknowledged the Pearl factor was hard on Martin and his family.

"There were a lot of distractions," Hart said. "You know what they were. You reported on them."

And while it is true that many Vols fans simply could not let go of Bruce Pearl (hence the petition and constant complaining about a defense-first coaching style), Martin is not blameless here. While Martin was never fully embraced at UT, he never fully embraced UT either.

Martin failed to accept that being basketball coach at Tennessee involves more than recruiting players and coaching them both on and off the court. There is a sales element to the job that he either didn't recognize or was unwilling to fulfill.

With his background as a player for Gene Keady at Purdue, Martin believes putting a good product on the court should be enough. Maybe it is at some schools (perhaps Cal is one of them), but not at UT. You've got to sell the program. And Martin isn't a salesman.

If he had his way, Martin would never have donned that orange blazer for the Vols' games against old rivals Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Pre-game introductions at Thompson-Boling Arena would be far less theatrical. The focus would be on what happens between the lines instead of any antics on the sideline or in the bleachers.

Frankly, I'm not sure how this approach will fly in the strange sports culture (some would say counterculture) in Berkeley. But at least Martin will get a fresh start.

Besides, following Mike Montgomery is different from following Bruce Pearl.


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