This is not what I wanted to write. My original idea for this week’s column was brilliant. It would have shone light into the dark nicks and crannies of unenlightenment everywhere…dispelling myths and slaying dragons of prattle and “straw men” as far as the eye could read. But, alas, it has come to this, and when a moment calls for clarity and circumspection, one must answer that call. Yes, I am referring to that now impassioned, and ever timely, conversation of “should he stay or should he go?” Should the present give way to the past, and possibly, lead to a brighter future, in doing so? Should the University of Tennessee Volunteers rid themselves of a currently winning coach for a formerly winning coach? Should the Vols fire Cuonzo Martin and re-hire Bruce Pearl?
Hyperbole aside, this is, actually, a very interesting topic. The Vols find themselves in a unique, and sort of strange, situation. Now, in full disclosure, I do not approach this conversation as a fan of this team. As most who know me will attest, I grew up in the fine state of Georgia, and am a loyal fan that fine institution of learning located in Athens, GA ( that’s ok…boo if you want. I’ll wait.). Still, there is a kind of liberty that comes with not having my heart cloud my mind in dwelling on this subject. A clear eye can be cast without the threat of emotion sparking. What does my third eye blind see? It sees a question with no easy answers.
Coach Cuonzo Martin has been a very good coach for the Vols. With an overall record of 55-38, and an SEC Conference record of 28-19, Coach Martin is a success by most any standard. He wins. His players love playing for him, and hearsay is that he is an all-around good dude. The one missing stat from his sheet, however, is the lack of an NCAA Tournament appearance, while in Knoxville, and that’s a problem…a big problem for many, and that’s where this issue becomes less “Uno” and more “Rubik’s Cube”.
Bruce Pearl was the coach of the Tennessee basketball Vols (Men), prior to Coach Martin. He, too, had a very successful tenure in orange, securing a total record of 145-61, and an SEC Conference record of 65-31. Not too shabby, as some of our more understated Midwestern brethren might say. The conspicuous difference between the Pearl and Martin records is the NCAA Tournament thing…Pearl coached in 6 straight…his last six years there…with Martin whiffing in his first two years. I want to say this definitively: Bruce Pearl is one of the best coaches of men’s basketball in these entire United States of America. That, my friends, is not up for debate. The problem with Pearl is that he ran afoul of NCAA rules, and brought the University, and him, under scrutiny and probation, in his last year. In fact, Pearl received a “Show Cause” for lying to the investigatory committee. That’s a big No-No, by the way. Consequently, Mr. Pearl was banned from coaching and recruiting for three years, hence the arrival of Coach Martin. And, here folks, we have reached the crunch.
Pearl still lives in Knoxville. That’s right. He never moved. While Coach Martin has been…well…coaching, winning, and turning young boys into men, Pearl resides in Knoxville, working a gig at ESPN, and waiting for his suspension to ease. He is that shadow behind the corner…that noise no else heard…He’s Napoleon exiled to Elba…waiting, possibly, to take back his throne, and conquer again. You see, once the ‘Show Cause” is lifted, somebody is going to hire Coach Pearl. Schools from around the country will be courting Pearl to lead their team. He knows it, ESPN knows it, and Vol Nation knows it. This is why there is a palpable unease with Tennessee basketball fans about this situation. The team stands, currently, with an overall record of 16-10, 7-6 in the SEC… not exactly a powerhouse basketball conference these days. Your Vols are firmly planted on “the bubble”…that effervescent designation of…”they might get an NCAA invitation or they might not”… basically, the same situation as the last two years. This is why the fan base is becoming agitated and disquieted. The prospect of the current coach treading water, with NCAA Tournament dreams stillborn and lifeless, while other teams like the hated Alabama Crimson Tide or Auburn Tigers hiring the “Orange Pearl”, and winning with him, completely disgusts them. So, what is to be done?
Who knows? I’m not sure there is a plausible and clean answer. If the Vols don’t make the NCAAs, Martin is probably gone, and Vols fans will be lighting up talk radio from Ringgold to Morristown calling to bring the not-so-prodigal son home. But what if Tennessee does make the tournament? They should win the majority of the games left on their schedule, and with a strong showing in the SEC Tournament, an NCAA invitation is possible. What then? You can’t fire a coach after he made “The Dance” can you? We reward winning in this country right? I mean…if the only difference between Coach Martin and Coach Pearl is NCAA invitation appearances, and Martin “goes dancing” this year, what’s the difference?
As I wrote, I am not a fan of the University of Tennessee, but I do not envy this situation at all. It is a choice between two very good coaches…and there will always be “what ifs”. But I would caution all the loyal Vols fans out there. Coaches watch these kinds of things, and how they are handled. It took the vaunted Vol football program 5 times to get a coach during the Dooley search and 4 times with Coach Butch Jones (great hire, by the way). If coaches look at a situation, and see a good coach, and a good man, like Cuonzo Martin, run out of town the same year he takes his team to revel in March Madness, they may not be eager to plant a home on Ol’ Rocky Top in the future. Coaching is tough enough if you lose, but the prospect of losing your job, even when you’re winning, wouldn’t be very enticing. In any case, this is a strange fruit situation, with a circumstance unlike any other in the country. It reminds me of that cruel phrase written by George Orwell, and later intoned by that poetically fulminous band Rage Against the Machine, “Who controls the past now controls the future, Who controls the present now controls the past.” Past or present…only one can be the future.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.