Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin apparently took his name out of the coaching search at Marquette so he could put it in a hat at the University of California at Berkeley.
On Tuesday, Martin broke ties with the Volunteers and accepted the head coaching job with the Bears.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart admitted Martin’s move surprised him.
“Not from my perspective,” Hart said when asked if he saw this coming during conversations he had while trying to keep Martin at Tennessee.
“I did not know Cuonzo was involved in the California job until (Tuesday) morning,” Hart said during an afternoon press conference. “We did have a conversation and he was very emotional.”
Martin was under fire for an underachieving team most of this season before the Vols shocked the country by reaching the Sweet 16 in the just-completed NCAA tournament where they lost to No. 2-seed Michigan, 73-71.
Martin succeeds Mike Montgomery, who retired after six successful seasons leading the Bears’ program.
Cal held a press conference to introduce Martin on Tuesday afternoon.
“I am pleased to be here and honored to have the opportunity to lead the University of California’s men’s basketball program,” he said in a story posted on the Cal athletic web site. “The conditions for success at Cal are right and I believe we can compete at the highest level and continue the success here in Berkeley.
“(Athletic director) Sandy Barbour’s reputation nationally is outstanding and having the opportunity to work with her and to coach at Cal is one that I am very excited about. This is an incredible academic and athletic institution and I am proud to now be a part of it as well as the Pac-10 Conference.”
Said Barbour, “We are excited to have coach Martin join our Golden Bears athletic family and look forward to much success during his tenure.”
Martin’s departure was likely fueled in large part to a “Bring Back Bruce” petition that garnered 30,000 signatures and comes two weeks after he said “Tennessee is where I want to be.” That statement came out after the coach withdrew from consideration for the head coaching job at Marquette.
However, at one point in his press conference at Cal, Martin was asked about the petition and said it didn't bother him at all.
"I thought it was a great teaching point for our players," he said.
In the days following Martin taking himself out of the running at Marquette, Hart began conversations with him about reworking the coach’s $1.35 million contract that had two years remaining.
Hart said he offered Martin a “significant reward” for what he accomplished last this season, saying that was a raise “close to a half-million dollars” with a two-year extension.
“He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Hart said, “that we wanted him to remain here. He would have been at $1.8 million with the two-year extension.”
Hart said explained the buyout surrounding Martin’s leaving when he did. He said coaches are given guaranteed money on the front end of a contract when he’s hired. He said the risk usually comes in the early stages of a contract and not in the “fourth, fifth or sixth year.”
“Traditionally,” Hart said, “that buyout goes down. As a matter of fact, Cuonzo’s buyout next year would have been $850,000. But what we had packaged for (Martin), the buyout would have been $1 million.”
Hart said Martin’s buyout “would not be negotiated.”
The Vols’ athletic director was asked if he’s ready to pay more to the new coach.
“We would seek as a priority someone with head coaching experience,” Hart said. “We are looking for a track record. Perhaps at the end of the day we don’t attract someone with a significant track record. Perhaps we attract a rising star.
“The rising star is different in terms of the financial package than the person with an outstanding track record. I am looking for somebody who is a winner.”
Hart flatly said he did not believe Martin’s decision to leave for California was not “driven by dollars or necessarily (the) number of years. Hart said distractions about whether Martin should be fired and ex-Vols coach Bruce Pearl lured back to Rocky Top were factors for the coach and players.
“It was a tough year for Cuonzo and Roberta (Martin’s wife),” Hart said.
Gary Parrish of CBS.com tweeted, “That UT players seem to be publicly siding with Cuonzo Martin should tell you they didn’t like the way their coach was treated.”
Junior Jarnell Stokes, who announced last week he would bypass his senior year and enter the NBA draft, responded this way to Parrish’ post: “Agreed.”
Senior Jeronne Maymon tweeted that he wasn’t surprised by Martin’s departure, adding, “It was only a matter of time” with the hashtag #RESPECT.
Long before Martin’s West Coast press conference, he already was in California and posed Barbour while holding a California game jersey for a picture posted on Twitter.
Seven-foot-one-inch prep center Kingsley Okoroh, who committed to Tennessee on Monday and was expected to sign with the Vols on Wednesday, instead made a bee-line for Berkeley, Calif., and will sign with the Bears.
Via his Twitter account, Okoroh said, “I announce my commitment to the University of California Berkeley. I’m very excited to be a BEAR!”
Two minutes earlier, Okoroh tweeted this: “I want to thank the University OF Tennessee and the fans for your support. Unfortunately I announce my de-commitment from Tennessee.”
What about Tennessee’s players and four 2014-15 signees?
Hart met with the players on campus prior to the press conference.
“That is always hard to visit with those young men,” he said. “We also reached out to the four prospects and tried to reassure all of them that we know it is tough. They did not expect that we would be dealing with a transition today. So that is difficult for them. We have reassured them (that) we understand that, that my door is open.”
A former player at Purdue, Martin left Missouri State to take over the UT program after Bruce Pearl was forced out after running afoul with an NCAA investigation.
In three seasons, Martin went 63-41 with two NIT appearances prior to this season's NCAA tournament that saw the Vols’ season end in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
On Feb. 22 after a disappointing loss to Texas A&M, the Vols were at 16-11 overall and 7-7 in the SEC and the heat was rising rapidly on Martin. Few gave Tennessee a chance at making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
But the Vols turned the season around by winning five of six games and advancing to the SEC tournament semifinals where they lost to top-ranked Florida, which eventually lost to UConn in the NCAA tournament semifinals. UConn won the national title two days later by beating Kentucky.
One of the last teams to make the NCAA tournament – the Vols were seeded 12th – Tennessee made the most of its opportunity to rewrite the season. The Vols defeated No. 11 seed Iowa in a “first-four” game and followed that with wins over No. 6 UMass and No. 14 Mercer to earn the Sweet 16 spot opposite Michigan.
The Vols fell behind early but battled back before losing to the Wolverines, 73-71.
Stokes, who averaged 18 points and 12.8 rebounds in this year’s NCAA tournament, lashed out at the NCAA guidelines that make life “a struggle” on student-athletes while announcing his plans to enter the NBA draft despite not being rated among the top 30 prospects by ESPN.
With Stokes leaving, the Vols and their new coach will have to replace four of top five scorers from the year’s team.
Including his three seasons at Missouri State, Martin posted 20-win seasons in four of his first six years as a head coach.
Cal has a solid program but recent first-round losses in the NCAA tourney has tarnished the team’s success. The Bears haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 1997.
The Golden Bears were 21-14 this season and tied for third in the Pac-12 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. Under Montgomery, the Bears enjoyed their winningest six-year run in school history.
Now Hart goes on another coach search.
He’ll probably feel considerable heat to hire a head coach with a proven track record, something that wasn’t the case when he brought Martin on board.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Hart said he is unlikely to hire a search firm to find the next coach.
“No,” he said. “I want to build a relationship with the head coach and the coaches know this. I would think we would not have a search firm. Obviously, we will immediately get into a national search seeking a replacement for Cuonzo as our head basketball coach.
“And a timetable is often difficult to nail down. There will be interest and we will hire the very best person we can. What we offered Cuonzo (financially) would have made him a top-30 coach in the country. I don’t think there will be issues in that regard.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Photo2 by Tennessee Athletics