published Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Wiedmer: Time for Vols fans to have Cuonzo Martin's back

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches a drill during practice for their NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game in Indianapolis.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches a drill during practice for their NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game in Indianapolis.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Tuesday should have been Cuonzo Martin's day in the limelight. A brief flirtation — or was it a money grab disguised as hurt feelings? — with Marquette behind him, a new Tennessee contract apparently in the works, it should have been his moment finally to feel the love and the focus of the Big Orange Nation, if not much of the sports world.

Instead, Tiger Woods had to go and pull out of next week's Masters due to an aching back. On April Fool's Day, of all days. And when Tiger's back means he won't be back at Augusta National this spring, every other sports story kind of goes to the back burner.

But in focusing on why Martin's return to the Big Orange for a fourth season seems to lack much joy and excitement, perhaps it's just as instructive to draw a comparison between the Masters without Tiger and the reality that UT basketball is now without Bruce Pearl forevermore.

Both Pearl and Woods bring unmatched excitement to their craft. And brilliance. And memorable moment stacked upon memorable moment. How many of us in my profession have written in the past that Sunday afternoons at the Masters, the U.S. Open, heck, the John Deere/Red Bull/Ping/Greater Holy Toledo Classic are just a heck of a lot more fun and interesting with Tiger on the prowl?

And regardless of the fact that Pearl deserved to be fired three years ago for lying to the NCAA or that Bruce Au-mighty has now been the Auburn coach for 16 days, Big Orange basketball always felt more fun and interesting with him on the sideline.

But that doesn't mean it's not time to move on for both the Masters and UT hoops. Especially UT hoops.

And while it might have been nice to see Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart and Martin on the same podium at the same time to discuss Tuesday's news, it's also far harder to glimpse clinched teeth and forced smiles on a press release. Either way, the words from both men's statements offer welcome insight into their goals and dreams for the program.

Never mind that Hart should have released his same statement immediately after the Volunteers' NCAA tournament victory over Mercer propelled them to the Sweet 16. Had he done that, Martin might never have listened to Marquette.

Martin's flirtation, however fake it may have been, did force the UT brass to far more closely consider whether it wanted to go through another coaching change. And with that consideration came this from Hart:

"We are proud that Cuonzo Martin will continue to lead our men's basketball program. ... Our strong finishes within the conference the past three years, prioritizing academics, representing the university with class and operating within the parameters dictated by the university and the NCAA matters greatly. Additionally, the social structure of the men's basketball program has vastly improved under Cuonzo's leadership."

In other words, take that, Coach Pearl.

And several of those thoughts need to be far more thoughtfully considered by every single one of those 36,069 misguided souls who signed an online petition to Bring Back Bruce.

Representing UT with class and operating within the parameters of the NCAA should matter greatly. For anyone who's ever earned a Tennessee diploma, members of your basketball team shouldn't be riding around in a car at high noon on New Year's Day with alcohol, drugs and guns in the car. Ever. And that 2010 incident wasn't the only embarrassing moment for Pearl's basketeers.

Yet because he went to six NCAA tourneys in six years, because he briefly elevated the Vols to No. 1, because he reached the school's first-ever Elite Eight, all was forgiven or ignored regarding Pearl. Kind of like a lot of golf fans have ignored Woods' deplorable personal behavior as a (formerly) married father of two.

But Martin hasn't exactly been bringing up the bottom of the SEC, either. He finished second in the league his first season, fifth last year and fourth this year, despite being the 11th highest paid coach in a 14-team league.

Beyond that, he went through all of last season without Jeronne Maymon and entered this season without point guard Trae Golden, who unexpectedly left the program. Maybe his Vols aren't always exciting, but they almost always fight to the final whistle, as witness their near win against Michigan in the Sweet 16 after trailing by 10 points with less than five minutes to play.

And because of that, or because of the embarrassment from the Pearl petition that UT administrators did nothing to silence, Hart also said this: "We are working on modifications to Cuonzo's current contract and will release details of those adjustments when finalized."

Martin made this easy, noting, "Tennessee is where I want to be," and "I believe we have the resources and support to be the last team standing."

But he also added: "We accepted some unique challenges when we took over this program in 2011, but our recent run to the Sweet Sixteen proves that our blueprint for achieving excellence both on and off the court can generate tremendous results."

That doesn't mean the fan base has been wrong to feel frustration about Martin's two NIT berths before this one after watching Pearl reach six NCAA tourneys in six seasons on the job. It does mean that that run came at a cost, and that Martin, his staff and players have been forced to cover that cost.

There may never be another Pearl at Tennessee, just like we may never again witness the golfing brilliance that was Tiger in his prime. But that doesn't mean that either the Masters or UT hoops isn't worth watching going forward.

With a revised contract in the works, it's time for the Big Orange Nation to have Martin's back. If they do, the Vols just might be the last team standing one day. If not, April 1 may not be the only day UT's fans may hear the word "Fools."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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