Editorial: Don't blame Cuonzo Martin for leaving

Apr. 16, 2014 @ 11:53 PM

Twenty-three days ago in this spot (March 25 issue), we predicted the tough regular season and intense scrutiny placed on third-year Tennessee Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin might drive him to seek employment elsewhere after the Vols’ successful NCAA tournament run.

Looks like, for once, we were right.

Martin left Tennessee Tuesday to join the University of California Bears in Berkley.

At a press conference hours after the news broke, UT Athletic Director Dave Hart essentially backed up our supposition from March 25.

“I don’t think Cuonzo’s decision was driven by dollars or was driven necessarily by number of years (of a contract extension offered),” Hart said. “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.”

Asked specifically if the passion of the fanbase is sometimes a problem, Hart said he’d take a passionate fanbase anytime over a listless one, although he also indicated fans’ passion can be misguided.

“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.”

It was the misguided portion of the fanbase which openly called for Martin’s firing and replacement with Bruce Pearl midseason. Should fans have been happy with a slightly over .500 record midway through the SEC season? No. But calls for a firing before the postseason in a tournament sport were premature.

As for Martin, it’s hard to begrudge his decision to bail. It would be tough to continue on in a town where you know a large, vocal portion of the team’s supporters don’t want you around, despite your averaging 21 wins per season in the wake of an NCAA investigation of your predecessor.

Even at his introductory press conference at Cal, Martin handled questions about the Tennessee situation with class.

“I thought that going through that, and to be honest with you, when you talk about the petition, I didn’t really hear about it until lately,” Martin said. “One of things when you’re a coach, you can’t be consumed with things outside your periphery and for me, I thought it was a great teaching point for our guys, because we always talked about having character and going through adversity and dealing with situations.

“What happened in that process was I was developing young men because they saw my approach every day and I came to work with my hard hat on, and nothing changed. ... I think what happened, was that young men became men in the process, because as a coach, you continue to lead through adversity and for me at the end, it didn’t bother me and that it was a great teaching point for our players.”

But, in the end, the petitioners got what they wanted. At least half of their wish, anyway — Bruce Pearl is still in Auburn.