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David Climer / The Tennessean

I wonder if Cuonzo Martin is starting to feel the influence of the Dooley Effect.

Remember, Derek Dooley was Tennessee's football coach for only three seasons before it was determined that mediocrity was unacceptable and he was fired. For those keeping score, Martin is in his third season as Vols basketball coach, and his team simply is not playing up to expectations.

College coaches in major sports used to get at least four seasons to prove themselves. It was considered only fair. That way, they could get their own recruits into the program and chart their course.

Those days are gone. By Year 3, you're on the clock.

Just as Dooley's 2012 UT football team began to collapse with a 37-20 home loss to Florida, I wonder if the Vols' horrible performance in a 67-41 debacle at Florida on Saturday was an aberration or a hint that more struggles lie ahead for Martin's team.

Games like the one at Gainesville expose UT's shortcomings. With three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, this team should not get rattled so easily on the road. But when Florida turned up its defensive intensity, the Vols wilted. Midway through the second half, UT had only nine field goals.

It's not the kind of performance that plays well to the fan base or enhances a coach's job security.

Let's be clear: Those at the top of UT's decision-making pyramid are inclined to retain Martin regardless of how this season plays out. After all the upheaval in the athletics program over the last few years — and all the buyouts — the last thing they want is another coaching change in a major sport.

Most of the powers-that-be prefer that Martin navigate past the Florida fiasco, start piling up some quality victories in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee, make the tournament field and perhaps advance a spot or two in the bracket.

If not, somebody is going to have to make a tough call.

Say what you will about Vols athletics director Dave Hart, but he doesn't seem to have a problem making tough calls. Somebody has to. Leadership on the UT campus is painfully lacking and has been for the last few years. Everybody seems to be approaching retirement. Nobody wants to rock the boat.

Sorry, but sometimes the boat needs rocking.

For decades, UT erred on the side of caution in these things. Don DeVoe survived back-to-back losing seasons in 1986 and '87 and still coached another two years. Wade Houston got a fifth season in 1994 even though everybody could see the program was headed south on his watch.

Then things began to change. Jerry Green wasted so much talent and alienated fans so completely that he was bought out after four seasons. Buzz Peterson was another four-and-done Vols coach.

There's a lot of that going around. The SEC is a quick-change conference when it comes to men's basketball coaches. Outside of Billy Donovan (18 years at Florida) and Kevin Stallings (15 years at Vanderbilt), this is a league in transition. Martin is one of six SEC coaches who has been in his current job three seasons or less.

Martin has history on his side. His previous two Vols teams have played much better as the season has progressed. Maybe that'll happen this time around and the game against the Gators will be just a bad memory.

But there's no disputing this Vols team has been a disappointment thus far. UT is 12-7 overall and just 3-3 in the SEC. The Vols check in at No. 51 nationally in RPI.

Another cause for concern: Two of UT's three best players – guard Jordan McRae and post player Jeronne Maymon — are leftovers from the previous regime.

And about that previous regime: Martin is in a difficult spot because he is constantly compared to his predecessor, Bruce Pearl, under whom UT men's basketball reached its greatest heights.

Nor does it help Martin that Pearl remains a beloved figure in the community. He still lives in the Knoxville area. He is active in charity functions. As a college basketball analyst for ESPN, he remains in the public eye.

Many Vols fans believe he should be rehired as soon as his three-year NCAA show-cause penalty expires.

Of course, Pearl supporters conveniently forget the mess he left behind. Martin got the job in large part because more qualified candidates passed because of concerns about possible NCAA sanctions resulting from Pearl's actions.

All of which brings us back to Martin. With the Dooley Effect in play, it's clear that Year 3 is a crossroads.

David Climer's columns appear on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at 615-259-8020 and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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