You can tell a lot about a coaching hire by how the school promotes it. Something big and positive you slate for a day and time that’s sure to bring maximum exposure. Something controversial and questionable you schedule for a moment when it might be all but ignored.
Which brings us to Sunday night’s announcement that Tennessee is hiring Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin to replace the ousted Bruce Pearl.
On the evening the Final Four was finalized, UT threw Martin out there for public consumption, a release certain to be relegated to “And in other news …” status throughout much of the nation.
Beyond that, by calling the official press conference for this afternoon, the UT brass risks being accused of attempting to steal the Lady Vols’ thunder as they attempt to lock down their own Final Four berth tonight against Notre Dame, being ignored again nationally, or both.
Of course, in a year when the men’s NCAA tournament has never contained more upset wins by programs whose coaches will almost certainly ride those bracket busters to bigger, higher paying jobs, why wouldn’t UT want to pick a guy who missed the Big Dance entirely?
Then again, who could ever forget Missouri State’s NIT opening-round win over Murray State 13 days ago?
This isn’t a slap at the 39-year-old Martin, who was once a wonderful player at Purdue, later a highly-respected assistant there and the architect of a remarkable turnaround at Missouri State.
No average coach can finish 11-20 his first season on the job, go 24-12 his second while winning the Collegeinsider.com tourney and 26-9 this past winter. It takes coaching talent to do that, especially in the Missouri Valley Conference, long one of the best mid-major leagues anywhere.
And by pointing out that Martin is a cancer survivor, UT athletic director Mike Hamilton rightly noted, “Cuonzo has an inspiring personal story.”
That said, what does it say about the UT job at the moment that the Big Orange brain trust took Martin, who is yet to take a team to the NCAA Tournament and never got to the Final Four as either a player or an assistant?
If you’re trying to make people forget Pearl, shouldn’t you hire somebody who at least enters the job with something approaching the Sweet 16 run that Bruce Almighty orchestrated at Wisconsin-Milwaukee his final season there?
What can Hamilton say when someone asks today, “What most impressed you about Cuonzo?”
Something like: “I just thought anybody who could lose by only nine at Miami in the second round of the NIT is the guy to finally guide us to the Final Four”?
Truth is, Pearl and Hamilton have conspired to leave the program in a giant mess. Because no coach can be certain of what the NCAA sanctions concerning Pearl’s recruiting violations will be once they’re finally announced in June, most coaches on the way up the ladder would have to think long and hard about taking the UT post when there are so many other good jobs out there at the moment at places like N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma.
Then there’s Hamilton himself, whose own future these days looks about as stable as Libya. The school apparently decided it couldn’t fire Hammer-brain before it hired a coach because the best coaching candidates would have long gone elsewhere by the time Hamilton’s replacement took over.
But isn’t the hiring Martin a certain sign that everybody else that anybody wants — VCU coach Shaka Smart, Butler’s Brad Stevens, Richmond’s Chris Mooney, to name but three — are going elsewhere anyway?
Maybe Hamilton dipped into his bag of recent brilliant coaching hires — football coach Lane Kiffin, baseball boss Todd Raleigh — and decided to outfox the rest of the country’s athletic directors once again. Or maybe Martin was the only one willing to say yes.
Of course, the reality is that no one can accurately answer whether Martin is a good hire or bad hire until three or four years from now, especially if NCAA sanctions cause a mass exodus on the current roster and encourage current signees to ask out of their scholarships.
Not saying there’s concrete proof that Xavier coach Chris Mack turned down an 8-year, $16 million contract to coach the Vols, but if Hamilton’s dangling 8-year deals out there, he suspects that the rebuilding job could be difficult.
Fortunately, what’s becoming just as difficult to believe is that Hamilton will last long enough to take credit if Martin succeeds.
Just don’t expect that announcement to come late on a heavy sports news day. The UT brass will want to give the Big Orange Nation plenty of time to celebrate that move. Unless, of course, they’re too busy celebrating Martin’s second Collegeinsider.com crown to notice.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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