Cuonzo Martin bolts for California, leaves Bruce Pearl's shadow behind


Knoxville, Tenn.--(CBS/UTSports) Cuonzo Martin is a lot of things.

Tough. Smart. Respected. Accomplished.

But Cuonzo Martin is not Bruce Pearl, and that's basically why Martin is no longer the coach at Tennessee and suddenly the coach at California, because he was never going to be BP in the eyes of UT fans, and he was smart enough to know it. The best example of this came this season, when fans started an online petition designed to encourage the administration to fire Martin and rehire Pearl. Roughly 40,000 folks signed the petition before Pearl took the Auburn job last month, and this all happened while Martin was in the middle of a season that would culminate with a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Can you imagine?

You sign two five-star prospects in a span of three recruiting classes, win more games each year than the year before, mold a roster into a team that will soon make the Sweet 16, and, still, literally tens of thousands of your own fans have taken time out of their days to sign a petition requesting that you be replaced by the man you replaced three years earlier. Combine that with the fact that four of the top five players from the team you just won 24 games with are leaving college, meaning a dip was almost certainly coming next season, and can anybody on this planet blame Martin for accepting California 's offer?

I know I can't.

Because he did what I would've done.

To be clear, I have no idea if Martin will be great at California because he has no obvious ties to the area, and that's a hard job, perhaps an even harder job than the Tennessee job. But that's also beside the point because the goal for Martin should've never necessarily been to get a better job than the Tennessee job. The goal should've been to get a different job than the Tennessee job for all of the reasons previously stated, and the idea that the Tennessee players effectively congratulated Martin on the move serves as a good indicator that they did not like the way their coach was treated and thus didn't mind seeing him bounce.

Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae tweeted positively about Martin.

So did junior guard Josh Richardson.

And then this happened ...

Interesting, right?

So good for Cuonzo Martin on getting a new contract and fresh start, and now Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart is on the clock. The Vols have nice facilities, decent tradition and tons of money to spend on their next coach, if they want to spend it, and I imagine Wichita State's Gregg Marshall will get the first phone call. But Marshall is already rich and plenty smart, which is why it's fair to wonder if he'd seriously consider a move to Knoxville when he has a team, thanks to Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, basically guaranteed to win another 30 games next season. Would Marshall really leave that to rebuild Tennesseee now? Or is his best option to make another NCAA Tournament, remain a hot name, and see if something bigger and better -- Texas, Oklahoma State, whatever -- opens next season?

I know what I think.

Either way, we'll see what Marshall thinks soon enough.

VCU's Shaka Smart will also get a call, if only because he always gets a call. But nobody I know who knows Smart thinks UT is a job he'd take, meaning Hart will likely end up shopping from the middle of his list, at which point some obvious names -- Xavier's Chris Mack, former UCLA coach Ben Howland, Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall, etc., -- will surface, and, eventually, somebody will accept the job, put on an orange tie and sing Rocky Top.

Meantime, Cuonzo Martin will be working 2,500 miles away.

Three weeks ago, he was in the Sweet 16.

Now he's in Berkeley -- free of Bruce Pearl's shadow and all online petitions.

DAVE HART’S TENNESSEE BASKETBALL PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT:

Tennessee vice chancellor and director of athletics Dave Hart addressed the media about the future of the men's basketball program Tuesday. A complete transcript follows.

(Opening statement)
"Good afternoon, and thank you for coming on what has been very short notice for all of you and we appreciate very much your quick response. Let me reiterate what I said at the end of the basketball season. We had a great run through the (NCAA Tournament) and I want to again recognize the job that Cuonzo Martin did as our head basketball coach and that his staff did making the contributions that they collectively did in order for us to end with a very memorable basketball season.

"Cuonzo Martin is an outstanding person; he was a terrific role model for our student-athletes, specifically our male basketball players. I know I and everybody connected with the athletics department, university, wish him nothing but success at Cal. I would be happy now to, in just a few moments, try to answer questions that you have. Obviously we will immediately get into a national search seeking a replacement for Cuonzo as our head basketball coach.

"No searches are ever identical in nature; I said this when we were in a football search. That is just a statement of fact. We will move as quickly as we can, as quickly as we reasonably can to get a replacement on board. To what the timetable is, is often times difficult to nail down. We are late in the sense that we are right on top of Signing Day, and the Final Four has come and gone. But we will immediately get in now to that search process.

"Let me just open it up for your questions."

(On when he was informed of Martin’s involvement with the Cal vacancy)
"I did not know Cuonzo was involved in the California job until this morning. We did have a conversation (this morning). He was very emotional. Bottom line is he said in his heart he believed that that was best for he and his family."

(On whether or not he told Martin he wanted him to stay at Tennessee)
"When we returned from the (NCAA Tournament), we got in that Saturday afternoon (March 29), and as soon as the bus was unloaded, Cuonzo and I spent about an hour and a half in my office talking about the future. He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we wanted him to remain here. We offered Cuonzo a significant reward for what he had accomplished, and that obviously will be available at your request to all of you. But we offered Cuonzo close to half a million-dollar raise and a two-year extension. So that part had already been addressed. He would have been at $1.8 million with a two-year extension."

(On Martin's buyout)
"The buyout would have been a million dollars. In this industry, you guarantee money on the front end when you hire someone. Cuonzo took over a tough situation that he inherited when he took this job. Typically, the risk is at the beginning, the risk is not in your fourth, fifth or sixth year. So traditionally that buyout goes down. Matter of fact, Cuonzo's buyout next year would have been $850,000. But what we had packaged for him (currently), that buyout would have been a million dollars."

(On whether or not he saw this coming)
"Not from my perspective."

(On whether or not he was surprised that Martin had not agreed to the revised contract earlier)
"It is a fair question, in the sense that I didn't put a specific, `Hey, I have to this tomorrow,' type of a timetable on it. I wanted him to have time. In one man's opinion, I don't think Cuonzo's decision was driven by dollars or was driven necessarily by number of years. I don't know. It was a tough year. I don't want to speak for Cuonzo. It was a tough year for Cuonzo and Roberta. There were a lot of distractions; you know what they were, you reported on them. Pretty tough for those young men (on the team), and I talked to them and they have unsolicited, as the end of the year was progressing, made comments about how tough that was. It was a tough situation."

(On moving forward)
"I don't have any problem moving forward. There will be interest, and we will hire the very best person that we can. I don't think there will be issues in that regard. What we offered Cuonzo would have made him (one of the 30 highest paid coaches) in the country."

(On Martin’s buyout now that Martin accepted the Cal job)
"That won't be negotiated, that is part of the contract."

(On whether or not in-season distractions played a role in Martin's decision to leave)
"I don't know. And again, only Cuonzo can speak to that."

(On if the passion of the fanbase was misguided and led to Martin leaving)
"Again, I have too much respect for Cuonzo to speak for Cuonzo. So I don't know. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to speculate on what in his heart and what he is thinking. Again, we hope he will continue to be very successful in his new opportunity."

(On concerns regarding the attractiveness of the job)
"I think this is an extremely attractive job. We have history, we have tradition, we have one of the finest venues in the country to play college basketball. So no I am not concerned about that."

(On what he will tell the signees)
"I had an opportunity, just an hour and a half or two hours ago at the most, to meet with our team and to talk to them. I have been through this scenario a number of times, and it is always very difficult because the players are always very emotional. They become very attached to the head coach for all the reasons you would expect. So that is always hard to visit with those young men. We also reached out to the four prospects and tried to reassure all of them that we know it is tough. You are 17- to 22-years-old and you get a surprise. They did not expect that we would be dealing with a transition today. So that is difficult for them. We have reassured them that we understand that, that my door is open, (executive senior associate athletics director) Jon Gilbert's door is open, that they should come to us, call us, we have all their numbers, they know how to reach us, that we would be happy to have those conversations with them and, to the extent possible, keep them in the loop of the search process. In terms of the timing, what is going on… we won't talk about candidates, those types of things. But it is a tough day for the young men who are involved in this transition. It is a tough day for the families. You have heard me say this when we went through the football transition."

(On being willing to pay more for a new basketball coach)
"That is a good question, too. We will go into the search process with a very similar profile that we discussed when we were in the football process. Now again, we would seek as a priority someone with head coaching experience. That does not eliminate people; it just says that is our initial priority. We are looking for a track record. You have heard me talk about this, you don't always end there. Perhaps at the end of the day we don't attract someone with a significant track record, perhaps we attract a rising star. I don't know, all of that is hard to forecast.

"But to answer your question, the rising star is different in terms of the financial package than the person with an outstanding track record. I am looking for somebody who is a winner. Somebody who has won where they have been. You just don't know until you conclude the process what you are going to be looking at in terms of your priorities and who rose up. You know, you could be sitting in front of somebody that maybe is not the No. 1 target but they come across as so impressive that you just know, that this is the person. You have heard me talk about it. I think fit is important. I have always felt that in my entire career. I think fit is critically important, and we will look for someone who we deem to be very good fit."

(On if today’s events were a surprise)
"Yes. I think we both thought that at that time. That is a fair question. Yes, today is also a surprising day for me. I did not think that we would be back into where we find ourselves today."

(On Tennessee’s fanbase)
"Cuonzo said it and he meant it- we have a phenomenal fanbase. You've heard me say this many times – give me the passion. We have a very passionate fanbase. I think (WVLT sports director) Rick Russo said it earlier, can passion be misdirected? Sure, it can at times, but we're blessed with a passionate fanbase."

(On his conversations with Cuonzo Martin)
"I would not share conversations that I've had with any coaches. We had a great relationship, and we had a very open relationship. The dialogue was very consistent, so we talked about everything – good, bad, indifferent, and that's what you should have in terms of AD-to-coach dialogue."

(On regional familiarity would be a factor in the coaching search)
"I don't know that in terms of the geography it would be critically important. I think anytime you're in the search process, knowledge of not only the game you're coaching, the knowledge of the environment, the conference, what's going on nationally is always important."

(On Tennessee’s fanbase selling the coaching position)
"I don't have any concern about that being a problem."

(On if he had in-depth discussions with Martin’s agent)
"No. I want to build a relationship with the head coach, and the coaches know this. In my mind, agents talk to attorneys about language and so on, but I (don’t have that AD/coach relationship with agents), so my conversations weren't extensive at all, nor have they been throughout my career with agents."

(On employing the use of a search firm)
"I would think we would not have a search firm."

(On the current team members being informed of Martin’s departure)
"I addressed that earlier. We met with the team maybe an hour and a half ago."

(On Tennessee’s signees' status)
"We fully expect those young men to be a part of our basketball program. It’s a tough time for everybody in terms of our current players and those signees, because right now there is a void for them. That's difficult to handle. It would be difficult to handle for any of us, even more so for young people.

(On transfer opportunities)
"We're not even in any of those conversations right now. We have a lot to do, and we'll deal with the various elements within the process as they come along."

(On his approach to the coaching search process)
"Same way I've done it my entire career. I know people in the basketball industry that I trust and respect, so I'll talk to them, then I'll reach out personally to candidates.

(On if he’s ever conducted a coaching search this late in the year)
"One time. It's tough. That was in July, if you can imagine. It makes it harder. It makes it tougher, but the timing is what it is and you deal with it and you move forward.

"That was just a case of a coach taking a job in July. The criteria as I mentioned earlier, the profile is very similar from my perspective. You look for the track record. You look for somebody that can recruit. Our lifeblood is recruiting in all of our sports. When you go into a process like this, you want to be sure that the person you're hiring is an outstanding recruiter. You also want a person that brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Transitions aren't easy, regardless of the circumstances that may have brought you into a transition. They're difficult. You want somebody with knowledge of the game and you want somebody that can attract a very high quality staff. Consider your own job – if you don't surround yourself with high quality people, you're not going to separate yourself. Those are the same qualities that I articulated prior to Butch Jones and our (football) coaching search."​

For the most up-to-date information about the Tennessee basketball program, visit UTsports.com/basketball and follow @Vol_Hoops on Twitter and Instagram.


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