Cuonzo Martin smiles as he speaks to reporters during a news conference Monday, March 28, 2011 in Knoxville, Tenn. after being named the new men's head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, replacing Bruce Pearl. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
One link between Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin is obvious. Had Pearl not been fired as Tennessee men’s basketball coach on March 21, Martin could not have been hired to replace him on March 28.
That fact is irrefutable. But that’s not the first time Pearl rather directly altered Martin’s life.
For that moment we must return to the summer of 1990. Martin was about to commit to play for Illinois, as might have been expected of a schoolboy star from East St. Louis.
We say “about” because it was during that summer that the Deon Thomas recruiting scandal began, a scandal created by Pearl when the then-Iowa assistant coach reportedly taped a phone conversation between Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins and prep All-American Thomas that seemed to indicate the Illini were willing to deliver both cash and a car for the player’s services,
Thomas always denied such an offer ever happened, and the NCAA later cleared the Illini of wrongdoing on that particular charge. But it found enough secondary violations eventually to ban the school from postseason competition for a single year.
Long before that penalty was handed down, however, Martin decided to sign with Purdue over his longtime dream team because he feared the worst from the NCAA.
And had Martin not played for Purdue he never would have become a Boilermakers assistant, which means UT athletic director Mike Hamilton would never have become impressed with his membership in the Purdue coaching tree, which means it’s at least somewhat unlikely that Martin would have caught Hamilton’s eye enough to land the Vols post when Pearl was let go.
Amazing how life works out sometimes, huh?
Amazing, too, the changes that could and should take place within this UT program under Martin’s watch. Like every other coach touched by former Purdue legend Gene Keady — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, Purdue boss Matt Painter, Illinois coach Bruce Weber, Steve Lavin of St. John’s — Martin’s approach figures to be one based on toughness and discipline in all areas, not just atop 94 feet of hardwood.
Maybe this will pay quick dividends and maybe it will take a while. And for the short term, much surely will depend on whether Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris elect to remain or leave for the NBA.
The hunch from here is that Hopson goes and Harris stays. My further hunch is that that would be best for all parties.
And should Harris return and the current signees decide to give Martin a chance, the Vols could be pretty good next season in this new system.
But let both Harris and Hopson leave and this assessment from former UT player and Pearl assistant Aaron Green could also prove true: “If those guys both go, they might have a chance to be pretty bad.”
Now the head coach at Oak Ridge, Green knows the current Big Orange program as well as anyone, having spent the three seasons before this one as everything from grad assistant to video coordinator.
Asked what happened to this year’s team down the stretch, he said, “I think it’s as simple as chemistry. Roles weren’t defined. Without [2010 senior] Wayne Chism they didn’t have a guy who could score with his back to the basket. I think there may have been a couple of role players who were mad because they weren’t getting as many shots.”
Whatever it was, the Vols were never a well-oiled machine. You could even make a case that they’d been something of a disappointment for much of the two previous years, minus last season’s NCAA run to the Elite Eight.
Say what you will of Pearl’s magic, and that magic was powerful during his first three seasons, but it had begun to fade a bit long before the NCAA came knocking.
Which is why Martin replacing Pearl could be a good thing. Defense again will be front and center. Offense will be precise and efficient. Discipline should be visible at all times.
And who knows? Three or four years from now — assuming the Cuonzo Show’s in high gear, Big Orange fans may look back on the Loosey Brucey Era and echo the words five years ago of Deon Thomas, who said of Pearl: “It’s hard to forgive a snake.”
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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