By Steve Williams
My first thought when I heard the breaking news: Is this a belated April Fool’s joke?
I wish it had been, but this was real.
Cuonzo Martin had left the University of Tennessee men’s basketball program to become head coach at California.
A little later, as I listened to the news and the reaction of the hosts and fans on a sports talk show, a clever producer began a new segment with bumper music containing lyrics from a Mamas and Papas’ 1965 classic hit . . . “California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.”
Last Tuesday in Knoxville certainly felt like a winter’s day, with freezing temperatures and spittin’ snow. And while coaching the California Bears might not exactly be Cuonzo’s dream job, it became his ticket to “peace of mind.”
When Martin made a return to Knoxville to say his good-byes to his team and others, he said the career move and new job had given him “peace of mind.”
He said it had nothing to do with the petition.
He said it had nothing to do with money.
Cuonzo added he’d never had much money growing up in East St. Louis, but he got a lot of love.
Martin never got enough love from the Tennessee fan base.
Many UT fans instead longed for the return of former coach Bruce Pearl, who had guided the Vols through their most successful six-year period in school history before being fired after getting in hot water with the NCAA.
With Martin’s team sputtering and Pearl nearing the end of his three-year show cause, over 30,000 reportedly signed an on-line petition this past season stating they wanted Bruce back.
Auburn ended up hiring Pearl shortly after being eliminated from the SEC tournament.
The petition woke up a “hungry bear” but also gave the Tennessee program a “black eye” around the nation, said Martin, as the Vols finished the season strong and made it to the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen before losing 73-71 to Michigan.
In the end, Cuonzo became the coach who had to follow a tough act. I believe he realized he was fighting a losing battle.
Tennessee, not long after its season ended, almost lost Martin to Marquette, but he withdrew his name from consideration, and longtime Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski was named the Warriors’ new coach.
Martin had a couple of meetings with UT Athletic Director Dave Hart on April 1 and UT fans who supported Martin were glad to hear him say, “Tennessee is where I want to be. That has never changed.”
A new and improved contract, including a $450,000 raise to $1.8 million and a two-year extension, was drawn up but not yet signed by Martin.
A $1 million buyout could have been a sticking point in the contract, particularly after Martin learned Jarnell Stokes, his best returning player, was going to forgo his senior season to enter the NBA draft. Without Stokes, making it to the Dance next season would be difficult. And in this coaching day and age, a million dollar pink slip is not much.
Martin most likely knew a call also could be forthcoming from Cal, since the Pac 12 Conference member had first expressed an interest in him around the time his team had lost to top-ranked Florida in the SEC tourney semifinals.
The call came. The opportunity was too much to pass up. He believed it was best for him and his family.
Martin liked the idea of a more relaxed fan base, Berkeley’s milder weather and the chance to coach at the top-rated public university in the country, plus a five-year contract.
It all added up to “peace of mind.”
Hart said he understood why Martin left after the “tough year.” Calling a 24-13 season that was a basket away from the Elite Eight a “tough year” was telling in itself.
Martin will be following another winning coach at Cal. But there’s a big difference this time. Martin will be following in the footsteps of a retired winner instead of a winner on the rebound.
Mike Montgomery coached the past six seasons at California and has a career record of 677-317. Martin just has to carry the baton, instead of trying to carry on a program with a divided fan base.
Tennessee basketball will carry on too with a new coach. Hopefully, he will be as good a man as Cuonzo.