Cuonzo Martin Likely Feigned Interest in Illinois for a Raise

By Ryan Wooden

University of Tennessee men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin denied interest in the vacancy at the University of Illinois on Wednesday–kinda sorta. Martin told Mike Griffith of the Knoxville News Sentinel and that there was “never anything to” the reports from Comcast SportsNet Chicago that Martin was interested in the Illinois job.

He also mentioned that he and his staff were “building something special” and that he enjoyed his job at Tennessee and was “looking forward to bigger things next season.” However, at no point during the short statement did he implicitly deny that he had ever expressed interest in the opening.

It’s certainly possible that CSN anchor Gail Fischer’s sources were mistaken, but it’s also just as likely that Martin may have feigned an interest in an effort to earn a raise. Martin just completed year one of a five-year contract that makes him $1.3 million annually, but a strong close to the conference slate after a disastrous non-conference run garnered Martin praise as a viable SEC Coach of the Year candidate (the award eventually went to John Calipari) and may have given Martin the footing to position himself for a raise.

Martin’s denial–if you want to call it that–sounded similar to the acquiescence of a philandering husband, although Martin leveraging the university for more money isn’t nearly as morally ambiguous. By not directly denying the reports, Martin is essentially telling the Vols, “Ya, there might be another girl, but she doesn’t mean anything.”

In all honesty, Illinois has candidates they would prefer at this point (namely Shaka Smart) and Cuonzo Martin has a $2.6 million dollar buyout that he would owe the university and vice versa, so by floating an interest to well-placed sources Martin can essentially leverage the university for more money without any real risk of losing his job. It’s good business, but it certainly gave Tennessee fans a scare.

Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton is also denying any interest in the Illinois job. However, Illinois’ undisputed No. 1 target, Shaka Smart, has issued no such denial, and unconfirmed reports say that Illinois would be willing to pay upwards of $2.5 million for the Virginia Commonwealth coach who led the program to an upset of Long Beach State last week and took the Rams to a Final Four just last season.

The allure of Illinois is centered around a passionate fanbase and easy access to the Big Ten’s most fertile recruiting ground, the Chicago Public League. Under former head coach Bruce Weber, the Illini struggled to sway talent from the CPL, despite being just two hours south of the Windy City.

However, for now, it appears that Cuonzo Martin, who is from downstate Illinois and went to Purdue, is comfortable in orange. Tennessee orange, that is.

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