Can we establish one thing right up front? Coaches don’t shoot themselves in the foot to prove a point with fans. They just don’t.
Cuonzo Martin’s departure from Tennessee for Cal has nothing to do with 36,000 fans signing a “Bring Back Bruce” petition, no matter how much the media wants to harp on it or how much a few Martin loyalists within the UT fan base want us to believe it to be so.
ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil rips Tennessee’s administration and fan base in a column this afternoon, saying that the Vols got what they deserve for not supporting Martin through the rough times. Her take is that UT has now decided that it wants Martin, but it’s too late to take it back.
O’Neil, like most sports columnists paid for their hack jobs, is trying to see how much nonsense she can pack into a single column.
Based on everything we know, we can reasonably assume that Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart was not Cuonzo Martin’s biggest supporter. He made some comments during the regular season that received little attention but that were very pointed in their meaning, basically saying that going to the NIT would not cut it. Would he have fired Martin if Tennessee hadn’t made the tournament? Maybe si, maybe no. I’m on record as saying probably not; probably, he would have given Martin another year. But one thing is for sure: When Tennessee made its run to the Sweet 16, Hart’s hands were tied. You don’t usually fire a coach who has just made the NCAA Tournament — although there is a bit of precedence for that sort of thing at Tennessee (just ask Don Devoe and Jerry Green). You certainly don’t fire a coach who has just advanced to the Sweet 16. But that doesn’t mean that Hart was happy with the situation. In fact, given the lack of new contract details we saw in the two weeks after Martin “withdrew” from the Marquette search, we can reasonably conclude that he was not happy.
As for the fans, who O’Neil contends “stopped wanting” Martin gone? Take a ride around the orange-tinted fringes of the social media world this evening and find me the legions of UT fans who are crying in their sweet tea because Martin left for Cal.
You won’t find them, because they aren’t there.
Sure, a few Tennessee fans are upset. But, by and large, the fan base is not disappointed. When news of Martin’s departure broke around lunch time today, the fan base collectively shrugged and said, “Okay, what’s next?”
Maybe they’re wrong for doing so. Maybe they let a great coach get away. I disagree, but maybe. Still, it proves O’Neil’s self-aggrandizing column complete malarkey.
Here’s the bottom line: Coaches don’t shoot themselves in the foot because the fan base turned on them. That doesn’t mean signing a petition for a coach’s ouster before the season was even through was a smart thing to do. I thought it was a head-scratcher then, and I think it’s a head-scratcher now. But, then, I don’t sign petitions as a general rule. The only petition you’ll catch me signing is one that actually means something — like when a friend needs a few voters’ endorsement to qualify for an election bid.
Coaches whose fan bases turn on them take better job offers. Or they take lateral job offers. I blogged several times late in the season that Martin would likely leave if he got a better job offer; might leave if he got a lateral job offer.
Martin to Marquette? That would have been a lateral job offer. Maybe even a better job offer, depending on who you ask.
Martin to Cal? Um, no.
Might Martin succeed at Cal? He might. But Cal is largely a coaching graveyard; it’s where promising coaches go to die. Mike Montgomery won four conference championships and enjoyed 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (including a Final Four) at Stanford. He just retired after six seasons at Cal in which he won the conference title once but failed to recapture the success he enjoyed at Stanford. Cal hasn’t been to the Elite Eight since 1960, or the Sweet Sixteen since 1997. Cal has won one conference championship in 54 years.
Bottom line? Coaches don’t go from the upper tier of the SEC to a Pac 12 wasteland — especially when they have zero ties to the West Coast — to prove a point to fans.
Coaches go from the upper tier of the SEC to a Pac 12 wasteland because they see the writing on the wall, and Cuonzo Martin is no fool. We don’t know what conversations have taken place between Martin and Hart over the past couple of weeks, but one thing we can be reasonably sure of: Hart wasn’t sold on Martin. Never was. And while you can’t fire a guy who just made it to the Sweet Sixteen, you can fire a guy who has failed to make the 68-team NCAA Tournament field for a third time in four years. Which was exactly where Tennessee was headed next season with Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes off to the NBA and Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton having used up all their eligibility.
Maybe Hart was wrong for not getting behind Martin, particularly after Martin’s run to the Sweet Sixteen. Some have argued that Hart was never going to be happy with Martin because Martin wasn’t “his guy.” Maybe.
Either way, it was a no-brainer for Martin. Stick with a place where you may possibly get fired in another year if you don’t make the NCAA Tournament, where you know you are losing four starters and are working with the least-talented corps of post players in your school’s modern history? Or take the first offer you get and run?
Martin was gonna take the first offer he got and run. He would’ve taken the Marquette offer, but it never came. It went to Steve Wojciechowski instead. Cal, on the other hand, came through. No one saw it coming, including Hart, who said this afternoon that he wasn’t aware Martin was even in the running for the Golden Bear vacancy until this morning. But it came.
And it was a no-brainer for Martin to take it.
But that isn’t the fans’ fault.
If the fans can talk a coach into leaving, John Calipari must never read the Rupp Rafters message board. They want him fired after every close loss. Heck, they want him fired after every single-digit win.
If the fans can talk a coach into leaving, Nick Saban must never read twitter. Three national championships in four seasons wasn’t enough to save him from the fans’ ire after he bumbled away an opportunity to beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl last November.
Grumbling is what fans do. It’s part of the pressure-cooker that is big-time NCAA Division I athletics, and it’s one of the big reasons why coaches are paid seven-digit salaries to do what they do. They don’t get to walk into Applebee’s and enjoy a meal like you or I, because someone is gonna light them up for not winning the national championship last season (or, if they won the national championship, for not following up with a top-ranked recruiting class).
Should the fans have grumbled? We can debate that one until Martin has won his first game in Berkeley, so there’s no point in making this rambling longer by delving into it here.
But don’t blame the fans for Martin’s departure. He’s a big boy, who played against the very top level of competition in college and who has coached against the very top level of competition. A few signatures on a meaningless petition don’t override the thousands of fans who showed up in Thompson-Boling Arena every night to cheer on the Vols, or the supportive majority who stood by Martin all the way through the season, even amid the losses to Vanderbilt and hapless Texas A&M. A few signatures on a meaningless petition don’t override the fact that every time Martin was announced as head coach prior to a game at TBA, the PA’s booming voice was met with 100% cheers, 0% boos.
Want to blame someone for Martin’s departure? Blame Dave Hart. Then if we’re gonna have a debate we can debate whether Hart was right or wrong in not showing more support for his head coach.
But the bottom line is that Martin just took Tennessee to a Sweet 16 appearance. Wake me up when he does the same in Berkeley. Tennessee-to-Cal is a downward move. Coaches don’t do that to prove a point. There’s a term for that. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
And they certainly don’t do it, as O’Neil claims, so they can “thumb their nose” at a few fans who signed a petition.