According to most reports by Marquette insiders late Monday night, Tennessee Volunteer basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was heading to Marquette. By Tuesday morning, Martin had pulled his name out of the running and Marquette hired long time Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski. If Martin were smart, he would have left Knoxville and taken the job at Marquette.
Martin had a rough season in the Volunteer State this season. Although Martin’s Vols made a strong run to the Sweet 16, his regular season was spent with an inconsistent team and turmoil from the outside.
Volunteer fans started a petition to have Martin removed and for the UT athletic department to bring back Bruce Pearl. The petition to bring Pearl back had 37,000 signatures when it was taken down after Pearl became the new coach at Auburn. Pearl’s hiring at Auburn eerily coincided with Tennessee making the NCAA Tournament, and it’s quite possible Martin would have been removed if not for the Vols’ late season run.
Even after the Sweet 16 run, Volunteer fans are still not sold on Martin. They have said his Sweet 16 run was due to luck in drawing UMass and Mercer in the NCAA tournament on message boards and the comment section of the local newspaper in Knoxville. They point to his lack of high level recruiting and grind it out style of play that many believe won’t work in Knoxville. Martin will lose 80 percent of his offense, rebounding and assists from this year’s team with the departures of his seniors and the likely departure of Jarnell Stokes to the NBA. Unless the Vols massively overachieve next year, Martin will find himself right back on the hot seat by this time next year.
The biggest problem facing Martin is the same problem that all SEC coaches but John Calipari face: SEC fans, other than Kentucky fans, view basketball as a secondary sport. Basketball then becomes a hard sell for any SEC basketball coach. Only Billy Donovan of Florida has been able to build an elite basketball program in the SEC that’s lasted, and he still can’t sell out his own arena. Bruce Pearl was able to change the culture a bit at Tennessee, and he made Big Orange Country care about basketball. But Pearl was a showman, painting himself while shirtless in orange to attend Lady Volunteer events and getting out in the community to sell the program. He’s was also a top notch recruiter. Martin is neither a showman nor has he proven himself to be a top notch recruiter. According to recruiting services, Martin has no four or five-star players coming in this year, and 2014 doesn’t look much better. Pearl has been the only coach able to succeed on consistent basis in Knoxville, as the list of the former coaches from Jerry Green to Buzz Peterson reads like a missing persons list.
Tennessee is a football school; it always has been and always will be. Basketball will always be seen simply as something to pass the time between football seasons. But oddly enough, Vol fans still expect elite play from the basketball team. Martin had a chance to go to a historically strong program in Marquette, and most importantly, a program where basketball is the only thing.
Martin’s agreeing to return to UT essentially is him agreeing to sit back down on seat that’s already starting to warm back up at a place where it seems the only thing Vol fans care about is who the starting quarterback is going to be next season.