Tennessee fans can finally move on with the satisfaction of knowing that they were right about Cuonzo Martin.
Cuonzo Martin is a good man- it’s vital to include that disclaimer when discussing him. Everyone that has come across Martin’s path all feel the need to make it known. When I was younger and attempting to go to press conferences and (somewhat) take journalism seriously, Cuonzo made sure to answer my questions while staring deeply into my eyes. He always seemed sincere. He’s charming in a type of way that most salesmen are. Friends of mine who worked in his program all sing his praises. He beat cancer. As a person, Cuonzo Martin is a good man.
Professionally, Cuonzo Martin is an average basketball coach. And a hustler.
On Wednesday, hours after one of his patented home NIT losses, Zo cashed in on his home state’s desperation with a seven-year offer worth $21 million to return to the SEC. It’s the perfect job for Martin. The Tigers basketball program is a disaster. Seriously, it’s currently somehow in worse shape than their football program. There is no talent on the roster, and fans realize that there is no quick fix to the damage that has been done. Expectations are low, which is important, because expectations are something that Cuonzo Martin has not handled well at his last two stops. The Tigers are merely looking looking for a coach to provide long-term stability.
Luckily for Mizzou fans, stability and Cuonzo Martin go together like oil and water- or like teams coached by Cuonzo Martin and offense.
The game plan is simple: start coaching at a new school, recruit NBA talent, underachieve with that talent, have recruiting drastically fall off and then bolt after year three.
California fans are shaking their head and thinking about Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb winning zero tournament games. Now, they’re stressing about the realization that Zo’s recruiting in 2016 wasn’t so good; 2017 isn’t looking much better. The jig was up in Berkeley. That’s the beauty of Martin’s plan.
And, so far, it has been the perfect plan.
When Martin left Missouri State for Tennessee, it was a natural progression from a mid-major program to a power 5 school. No judgment. While at Tennessee, Cuonzo took over a program picking up the pieces of a broken heart with no real expectations for the immediate future. Both years 1 and 2 ended up with first round NIT losses, but attendance was still in the top ten in the country and morale was fine. Year 3 has been well documented: a talented roster is 15-10 and on the bubble in the middle of February, an online petition asking the school to bring back Bruce Pearl gets started, team rallies and wins five of their last six games, makes the tournament and makes a run to the Sweet 16 (the only time in Martin’s 9 year coaching career he has advanced in the NCAA tournament).
No one blamed him for feeling disrespected by both the fans after the petition and the administration after only a small raise was offered. Leaving for California made perfect sense. The media couldn’t wait to write their “Take that, racist hillbillies!” articles. ESPN’s Dana O’Neil compared Cuonzo Martin to Jesus Christ while saying that Tennessee’s Athletic Director Dave Hart was Judas.
At Cal, the early headlines were all about recruiting. The Golden Bears put together a class with two five star recruits, while narrowly missing a third stud. That team struggled and lost in the first round of the tournament after its starting point guard was injured leading up to the game. This year, life on the bubble was unkind. Again, Martin underachieved with a talented roster and lost in the first round of the NIT.
However, the narrative today isn’t about a captain abandoning a sinking ship as his fan base has figured out he’s an average-at-best coach. It’s not about California being in worse shape today than they were three years ago when he took over. No one cares about Kingsley Okoroh, who followed Martin to Cal after committing to him at Tennessee, just like no one cared about Robert Hubbs who never quite reached his five-star potential after his turmoil filled career Martin is part responsible for.
Instead, it’s sold as a homecoming. It’s justified. Just like it was when he left Missouri State. Just like it was when he fled from Tennessee.
Cuonzo Martin is a good man.
The media wants you to know that. Other coaches are sleazy when they jump from job to job. But other coaches didn’t have to fight racism and get the option to return home! It’s different. He’s a good man, not a coach whose main focus is self-preservation.
That’s why they gloss over the fact that in 2016, California had to fire assistant coach- and lead recruiter- Yann Hufnagel for sexual harassment. At Tennessee there was the Yemi Makanjuola rape that was at the forefront of the recent Title IX lawsuit against the school. And the whole story with Martin’s starting point guard, Trae Golden, transferring prior to his senior season because of an investigation into whether or not he was having inappropriate relations with the director of student judicial affairs.
How much, if at all, is Martin to blame for any of these instances? I’m not sure. But I know that there aren’t many coaches in the country who could skate by all three of them without any blemishes in the arena of public perception.
It seems silly to most outsiders (and even to some insiders) that Vol fans still find themselves affected by the three-year-old topic. Move on. It’s old news.
Maybe now, we officially can. Because we were right all along. Cuonzo Martin’s struggles at Tennessee were not because he was black, no matter how many people try to tell you otherwise. They were because he’s an average coach, with a personality as boring as his brand of basketball. He’s won 60.6% of his career games. He’s taken NBA talent to more NITs than NCAA tournaments.
When he inevitably leaves Missouri, it won’t be his fault. Either he fails and everyone points out how terrible of a situation he inherited, or he does what he always does and finds someone else to pay him before he gets fired and everyone talks about how Missouri just wasn’t the right fit for Martin.