Cuonzo Martin’s time at Tennessee didn’t go as he or UT hoped. Vol fans weren’t exactly happy with his three years in Knoxville, either, and that led to a very messy final year for Martin at Tennessee and a less-than-graceful exit for him from the university.
If anyone has a reason to not like Tennessee or to have hard feelings towards UT fans, it’s Martin. But that’s apparently not the case at all.
According to current Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, the first time he ever ran into Martin after the former head coach returned to the SEC as head coach of Missouri, Martin told Barnes that he would enjoy himself at UT and that the people there were “great.”
“Cuonzo is one of the finest people I’ve been around,” Barnes said during his press conference on Monday. “My first year, I bumped into him, I think we were in Augusta, Georgia, and we were checking into a hotel at the same time. He said to me ‘You’re going to love Tennessee. The people are great, and you’re going to love it.’”
Martin coached at Tennessee for three seasons, going 63-41 overall and taking his team to the Sweet Sixteen in his final season in Knoxville.
But that Sweet Sixteen run isn’t the most defining factor of Martin’s tenure at UT.
Unfortunately for Martin, he had the bad luck of having to follow Bruce Pearl, who was one of the more beloved head coaches in Tennessee history at the time. Pearl had led the Vols to the program’s only Elite Eight appearance and made the NCAA Tournament all six years he was head coach of the Vols. Pearl was known for his showmanship and ability to market Tennessee’s basketball program. He coached an exciting brand of basketball, and he helped reawaken the sleeping giant that was UT’s basketball fan base.
But Pearl was ousted in 2011 amid an NCAA investigation into him lying about a recruiting incident involving impermissible contact with a recruit at a BBQ. Martin was hired to replace him.
In terms of both personality and on-court coaching, Martin and Pearl couldn’t have been more night-and-day. While Martin had success as Tennessee’s basketball coach and had several future NBA players on his roster, Vol fans never connected with him.
In fact, many fans wanted a change midway through Martin’s third year at UT.
Fans had grown tired of Martin’s slow tempo offense and uglier style of basketball. They had grown accustomed to the faster pace of Pearl’s teams and believed that Martin was underachieving given the talent on his roster.
The Vols had failed to make the NCAA Tournament in Martin’s first two years, and the 2013-14 squad seemed destined for the same fate after an overtime loss on the road to Texas A&M left Tennessee with a 16-11 record late in February.
In the couple weeks before that game, Vol fans had started a petition online to “Bring Back Bruce” to Tennessee. By February 17th, over 10,000 signatures were on the petition, and that number tripled to well over 30,000 by the beginning of March.
Tennessee’s players fed off that negative energy towards their coach, winning their final four games of the regular season, fighting hard in the SEC Tournament, and earning one of the last four bids to the 2014 NCAA Tournament with a 21-12 record.
The Vols then continued their hot streak, winning against Iowa in the play-in game in overtime, then bulldozing UMass and Mercer on their way to the Sweet Sixteen before being downed by Michigan thanks to a late controversial charge call on Jarnell Stokes.
During all the controversy and angst from Vol fans, Tennessee Athletics Director Dave Hart never really tried to calm the waters. He largely left Martin out to dry and didn’t make a huge effort to support UT’s basketball coach.
In the offseason, Martin and Hart came to an agreement on a new contract for Martin to stay at Tennessee. But UT’s head coach wouldn’t stay at that position much longer.
Shortly after the season and after the contract talks had subsided, Martin left Tennessee to go coach at Cal. He stayed there for three seasons before coming to Missouri and getting back into SEC basketball.
Vol fans get unfairly painted in a certain light by many national media members for how the Cuonzo Martin era ended, but Martin wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms when he first arrived in Knoxville, and his time at Tennessee isn’t necessarily fondly remembered by a lot of fans. But Martin himself has never publicly spoken ill of Tennessee fans or his time in Knoxville. And that’s reflected in his comments to Barnes.
Barnes himself is a big fan of Martin, and it’s clear he thinks Martin’s time at Tennessee could’ve (and should’ve) gone better.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Barnes said of Martin. “I’m not sure if I should say if he was treated here as well as he should have been treated, because I can tell you that there isn’t a finer person and a finer man.
“I know one thing: If my son ever wanted to play for him as a player, I’d want him to play for him. He’s that kind of person that you’d want your son to be around every day.”
No. 1 Tennessee (20-1, 8-0 SEC) and Missouri (11-9, 2-6 SEC) will tip-off at 9:00 PM Eastern in Knoxville on Tuesday, February 5th. The game will mark the first time Martin has returned to Knoxville since his coaching days at UT.