We're in a unique place with our basketball coaching situation - everybody still loves the last guy, the vast majority didn't want him to go, and it'll be months before we find out what the NCAA will do to him and exactly how forced our hand actually was. The fact that the last guy was also the most successful coach in the history of the program makes it worse. Then yesterday, he breaks three weeks of silence to come on The Sports Animal and talk about cancer research and say every good and right thing about the new guy.
Tennessee fans love Bruce Pearl, and probably always will. It's not a good situation to walk into for the new guy.
We're also incredibly experienced in building relationships with new coaches before their first game - we gravitated toward Lane Kiffin because of his words, we praised Derek Dooley for his eleventh hour recruiting haul, and now we're looking for Cuonzo Martin's first "you see, this guy is gonna work!" irrational offseason moment.
With Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson still hanging in the balance, many have gravitated toward Martin's personality as a real positive - not because he's anything like Bruce Pearl, but because he appears to be so genuine and no-nonsense.
One thing that's also easy to do is to look at the new guy and find ways he's better than the old guy. When the Vols forced a fumble and scored a touchdown on the next play against UCLA in September 2009, Neyland Stadium exploded and a couple of the guys I sit with in Z11 said something along the lines of, "Hey, this is fun again!" And while part of me remembered having fun just two years earlier, I also understand the sentiment: the situation with Fulmer had gotten to the point where some fans, right or wrong, couldn't enjoy the moments that should've been enjoyed. And so our minds played tricks on us, making a 10-3 second quarter lead on UCLA feel better than a 21 point beatdown of Georgia or a four overtime win at Kentucky to clinch the East.
It was easy, and much more fun, to point out all the ways that Dooley was better than Kiffin. So now we come to Martin and Pearl...and it seems like for some, it's easy to fall back into that old habit: find ways the new guy is better than the old guy. But given the unique situation, I think most Tennessee fans are going to come to this reality, if they haven't already: it's okay to like Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin at the same time.
The need to tear down the old guy for the sake of the new was on display last week, when Mark Wiedmer from the Chattanooga Times-Free Press wrote this story after witnessing one of Martin's workouts with the Vols. Aside from commenting on the intensity of the workouts, Wiedmer also added the following:
But something rising sophomore Tobias Harris said about these workouts — especially if the gifted Harris eventually shuns NBA green to become a sophomore — shouldn’t be ignored when evaluating Martin’s first 15 days of employment.
Said Harris: "He’s pushing me not only in these workouts, but as a person, too."
As a person, too. Those words weren’t often heard from the UT hoops men the past two years.
They’d rave about Pearl the tactician, Pearl the motivator, Pearl the innovator. Yes, he could beat No. 1 Kansas with four key players suspended. But why was he forced to win that way? Why were those four players driving around Knoxville at high noon on New Year’s Day toting guns and alcohol and drugs? Because Bruce Almighty was pushing them to be better people?
There's more along those lines in the rest of the story.
Bruce Pearl is not the image of honesty or integrity at this point. And several UT players did run afoul of the law or the program's substance abuse policy over the last six years.
But it's also true that Pearl was an extremely harsh disciplinarian on those matters, suspending and dismissing players no matter who they were.
You can make assumptions about Pearl and his role in making not just basketball players, but men out of the boys he watched over. Many of Phillip Fulmer's former players will still rave about Fulmer's personal investment in them and his desire and success in helping them become men. And keep in mind, it's called the Fulmer Cup for reasons beyond the fact that a Florida fan runs that site.
But to make a negative assumption about Pearl and then turn around and make the same positive assumption about Cuonzo just fifteen days on the job is irresponsible. A cynic would easily point out that maybe he just hasn't been on the job long enough for any of his players to get arrested or fail a drug test.
Look, I feel better about Cuonzo Martin every week. Will West offered great insight on this on our podcast last night. By all accounts he is a man of great character who will be good for the program; when you look around at all the other hires this time around, it seems like Tennessee made the best one.
There's just no need to attack Pearl for something else, then turn around and praise Martin for doing the opposite when he really hasn't been here long enough to do anything. That can also be used to set him up for failure when one of the 18-22 year olds he's responsible for does an 18-22 year old thing.
In his radio interview, Pearl says that he wanted to have more than just a good run here, that he wanted to add to the legacy of Tennessee Basketball. If he doesn't understand it already, I hope one day soon Bruce will realize that he gave our legacy its greatest chapter.
What he does understand is that now it's Cuonzo's turn, and it's his job to keep that legacy moving forward. You can like Pearl and Martin at the same time - there are plenty of reasons to love Bruce, and Martin has done nothing but give us reason to be hopeful in his very short time here. You don't have to tear down the old guy to build up the new. The legacy of Tennessee Basketball is big enough for both of them, and I hope one's success leads directly to the other's.