KNOXVILLE – Cuonzo Martin took the high road all season in the face criticism and amidst some fans’ desire to bring back former coach Bruce Pearl.
Even as his team overcame early-season disappointment and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, Martin never fired back at the contingent of fans that wanted him removed.
But despite releasing a statement two weeks ago stating his intentions to stay at Tennessee, Martin took a different road on Tuesday – accepting the head coaching job at the University of California and ending a three-year tenure in Knoxville with a 63-41 record.
California has confirmed the hiring and will officially introduce Martin at a press conference late Tuesday afternoon. Martin, who was not in attendance at Tuesday’s press conference in Knoxville, has already met and addressed his new team.
“In one man’s opinion, I don’t think Cuonzo’s decision was driven by dollars or was driven by necessarily number of years,” Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I don’tknow. It was a tough year. I don’t want to speak for Cuonzo. It was a tough year for Cuonzo and (wife) Roberta.
“There were a lot of distractions, you know what they were, you reported on them. Pretty tough for those young men 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.”
Something was likely to give this offseason with Martin’s $1.3 million contract only running through the 2015-16 season. But Hart confirmed that UT offered Martin a raise that would’ve boosted his contract to approximately $1.8 million per season in addition to a two-year contract extension.
Though a $500,000 raise is significant by any standard, that still would’ve made Martin just the eighth-highest paid coach in the conference despite finishing no worse than fifth in league standings in any of his three seasons at UT.
After Martin had been strongly linked to the Marquette opening in late March, a joint statement released by Hart and Martin on April 1 expressed confidence in Martin by Hart and a desire to stay in Knoxville by Martin. At that time contract “modifications” were promised, but no specifics were given.
Hart admitted he was caught off guard when Martin informed him of his decision to leave on Tuesday morning.
“Today is also a surprising day for me,” he said. “I did not think that we would be back into where we find ourselves today.”
Hart vowed that Tennessee will begin an immediate and national search for its next head coach. He also indicated that, at this point, he does not plan to use a search firm to assist. This will be the fifth time the Vols have searched for a head coach for its football or men’s basketball program since December 2008.
He didn’t rule out any type of candidate, instead saying he was primarily looking for a winner and a good fit. That could be an established major head coach or an up-and-comer in Hart’s eyes.
“We will go into the search process with a very similar profile that we discussed when we were in the football process [of hiring Butch Jones in 2012],” Hart said. “Now again, we would seek as a priority someone with headcoaching 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.”
Tennessee is the only major-conference team with an opening right now. The spring signing period begins on Wednesday, though Tennessee already signed four players in the fall – point guard Larry Austin, forwards Phil Cofer and C.J. Turman and wing Jordan Cornish. Hart indicated that he expects all four to be part of the program. Those players would have to request and be granted a release from Tennessee in order to sign with another program at this point.
Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland and Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall are names that have been linked to UT early in the coaching search. But judging by UT’s past few major coaching searches, an under-the-radar candidate very well could emerge.
Change has been the norm at Tennessee, but now Hart must convince a candidate that he can sustain long-term success in Knoxville.
“There will be interest and we will hire the very best person that we can,” he said. “I don’t think there will be issues in that regard.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga