Cuonzo Martin's biggest flaw at Tennessee was one he could never control: He wasn't Bruce Pearl.
Martin, who left the Volunteers on Tuesday after three seasons to take over as the head coach of California, had the misfortune of arriving in Knoxville in 2011 on the heels of the Pearl era. Pearl had been fired after lying to NCAA investigators, as well as the cumulative effect of other violations, after what was perhaps the most successful run in Tennessee basketball history. In six seasons in Knoxville, Pearl took the Volunteers to six NCAA tournaments and lifted UT to the program's first-ever No. 1 ranking. At a football-heavy school, Pearl made the Vols matter on a national basketball level.
Enter Cuonzo Martin. Martin was not the human lightning rod that Pearl was, at least from a marketing standpoint. Martin also emphasized a defense-first style of play that differed from the high-octane scoring exhibitions of Pearl's teams. But even though his players loved him, the biggest anchor to Martin's career in Knoxville was that he wasn't Pearl. To many fans, that was more important than winning games.
And Martin did win games. Did the Vols reclaim Pearl-like success during Martin's tenure? No. But Martin inherited a 19-15 bubble team from Pearl in 2011. That was Pearl's worst record at Tennessee. Martin took that team and finished his first season in Knoxville with an identical 19 wins, but just missed the NCAA tournament. That record grew to 20 wins in 2012 and 24 wins this past season. Based on preseason expectations, there were times the Vols underachieved, especially in the regular season. Last season fell into that category.
But look at the bigger picture. In 2013, Martin still turned around a team that lost to the likes of Texas A&M twice in the regular season and took it to the Sweet 16. He did that with many Tennessee fans clamoring to bring back Pearl. How many? At least 36,000, based on the number of signatures on a "Bring Back Bruce" petition that circulated around Knoxville and undoubtedly lingered over Martin's team. But instead of folding, Martin and his players shook off the criticism and won three NCAA tournament games.
Martin had his share of questionable losses, and he only made one NCAA tournament in three seasons, so some criticism was absolutely warranted. But in the end, Martin did what any coach is hired to do: He improved his team's record each year and kept his players out of trouble. Yet when Martin flirted with the job opening at Marquette last month, many Tennessee fans were still eager to show him the door.
It's unclear what exactly led to Martin's decision to leave Tennessee. Vols athletic director Dave Hart said on Tuesday that UT offered the coach a half-million dollar raise and a two-year extension. That would mean Martin's salary would jump to $1.8 million per year. According to FootballTime.com, Martin's .606 (63-41) winning percentage over the past three seasons ranked him third among SEC coaches, behind Kentucky's John Calipari and Florida's Billy Donovan. So UT's offer would have made Martin -- a top-three coach in the SEC over the past three years -- the eighth or ninth highest-paid coach in the SEC. Can you blame Martin for being upset?
More importantly, perhaps the disrespect from the fan base finally wore on him. Maybe this was a necessary divorce, and Martin might be better off on the West Coast. The real question is where the Vols go from here. They should, at the very least, place calls to Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and former UCLA coach Ben Howland. Those two coaches might be pipe dreams, and much of Tennessee's situation depends on what Hart and UT are willing to pay. Moreover, how many coaches would want to deal with a Tennessee fan base that might have played a role in the departure of a Sweet 16 coach? These are all questions that remain unanswered. But until they are, it seems clear that Cuonzo Martin is better off by having left Knoxville. It's unlikely the Vols are too.