The longer this goes, the more I think it was always going to be this way. Even if the Vols shot better than 27% at the line to beat Georgetown and danced last year. Even if we didn't lose to Oakland, Austin Peay, and Charleston the year before while we were figuring things out and danced then too.
If Cuonzo Martin had snuck in consecutive NCAA Tournaments - which would've been exceptional accomplishments in either of the two previous years - and then lost to a higher seed in round one, we'd be asking when he was going to win an NCAA Tournament game. If we'd gotten in and won in the first round twice, we'd be asking when he was going to get to the Sweet 16. In both scenarios, I think we might still be asking for change.
It's what Bruce Pearl did, and there should be no apologizing for it. But this is the way this story always goes: if the new guy isn't as good as the old guy, he becomes the old guy. With Pearl, it's not even the mountaintops - the week at number one, the conference title in a league with Kentucky and Florida, the program's first ever Elite Eight - it was the consistency. Bruce Pearl made the Sweet 16 a legitimate annual expectation for Tennessee Basketball.
That expectation was a joke before Pearl arrived, of course. And a more fair analysis of Cuonzo Martin against the greater landscape of Tennessee Basketball is a worthwhile exercise, even if it may not (and perhaps should not) change anyone's mind.
But if there was no Bruce Pearl, would we be satisfied with the job Cuonzo Martin is going? Here's how Martin stacks up to Pearl's four predecessors dating back to the post-Don Devoe Era, a time some of the fans who came in with Pearl and may go out with Cuonzo may be generally unaware of:
1990: 16-14 (10-8), NIT Second Round, 17,524 average attendance
1991: 12-22 (3-15), 16,394
1992: 19-15 (8-8), NIT Second Round, 16,173
1993: 13-17 (4-12), 15,367
1994: 5-22 (2-14), 13,030
Total: 65-90 .419 (27-57 .321), 15,698 average attendance
When DeVoe left after six NCAA Tournament appearances and three NITs in eleven years, the Vols went to longtime Louisville assistant and East Tennessee native Wade Houston. The extra incentive: his son Allan, who would go on to become the second leading scorer in SEC history. A memorable SEC Tournament run eased the pain of the 1991 season and Houston was given one more chance after his son's graduation, but the result was disastrous.
1995: 11-16 (4-12), 14,882
1996: 14-15 (6-10), NIT First Round, 14,377
1997: 11-16 (4-12), 14,294
Total: 36-47 .434 (14-24 .368), 14,518 average attendance
Here's a statement about how things can change in your program over time: O'Neill's '96 team went to the SEC Tournament needing one win to stay north of .500 and qualify for UT's first NIT appearance in four years. Steve Hamer had a huge night and the Vols beat Alabama to advance to postseason play in a win celebrated by the athletic department all year. O'Neill's teams were defense first and often defense only, routinely hammered by the best of Rick Pitino's Kentucky squads. His last year wasn't great but O'Neill had gutted the roster after Houston and faced a near-total rebuild. But he was recruiting in Memphis and elsewhere really well and had a lot of talent coming in. A disagreement with then-AD Doug Dickey about the eligibility of Isiah Victor and a general dislike of playing third fiddle to football and the Lady Vols helped lead O'Neill to take the opening at Northwestern after three years.
1998: 20-9 (9-7), NCAA First Round, 15,372
1999: 21-9 (12-4), SEC East Champs, NCAA Second Round, 15,797
If you weren't there, Jerry Green's termination after 2001 looks like the stupidest move this athletic department has ever made. Green came from Oregon, took Kevin O'Neill's recruits, and made Tennessee a winner right away. He was the anti-O'Neill, using strong post play from Victor and C.J. Black and an up-tempo offense with Tony Harris, Brandon Wharton, Vincent Yarbrough and others to encourage lots of points and a defense that emphasized highlight shot blocking but little that resembled hard work. The '99 team got dusted by Southwest Missouri State in the second round by 30 points, but the 2000 team made the program's first Sweet 16 since field expansion by beating the defending champs from UConn and was staring the Elite Eight right in the face before a late North Carolina run eliminated them. Green brought Ron Slay, Marcus Haislip and others to the program and had the 2001 Vols at 16-1 (3-0) and ranked 4th. UT lost five of its next seven and came to a three game homestand against Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia looking to save its season. Instead the Vols went 0-3 and gave up an average of 93 points. Green went on the radio and said if fans didn't like it they could go to K-Mart instead, the Vols went down in the first round in an 8/9 game, and Green was not retained. A bad personality fit with great temporary results, but ultimately crashed and burned with few fans calling for a different outcome. Green never coached again.
2002: 15-16 (7-9), 14,230
2003: 17-12 (9-7), NIT First Round, 13,730
2004: 15-14 (7-9), NIT First Round, 13,426
2005: 14-17 (6-10), 12,225
Total: 61-59 .508 (29-35 .453), 13,403
Another roster rebuild in the aftermath of Green's departure faced Buzz Peterson, who won over the fanbase early with his personality, especially in comparison to his predecessor, and his promise after a great run at Appalachian State and an NIT title at Tulsa. His first team lost an inordinate number of one possession games. His second team flourished behind Ron Slay's SEC Player of the Year senior season but saw Jon Higgins get kicked off the team for academics the week of the SEC Tournament, which helped the selection committee leave the Vols out. At the time UT was only the second SEC team to go 9-7 in league play and get left out. Peterson got the benefit of the doubt in 2004 because the entire team was coming back in 2005, then added freshman Chris Lofton. But the Vols were inexplicably worse with essentially the same team on the floor. Many of the players who would lead Bruce Pearl's early teams, including Lofton, C.J. Watson, JaJuan Smith, and Dane Bradshaw were all Peterson recruits, but massively underutilized. There was a significant percentage of the fanbase that wanted to keep Peterson for another year, with Phillip Fulmer and Pat Summitt giving him a public vote of confidence. But business-savvy Mike Hamilton cited attendance as a major factor - Peterson's final year had worse attendance than the dreaded 5-22 year under Wade Houston - and made a move to reject apathy.
Then there was Pearl for six years. Then...
2012: 19-15 (10-6), NIT Second Round, 17,411
2013: 20-13 (11-7), NIT First Round, 17,395
2014: 15-9 (6-5), 15,249
Total: 54-37 .593 (27-18 .600), 16,685
The numbers are about what you'd think: Cuonzo wins more than anyone in that span other than the Jerry Green anomaly, and more people are coming to his games. But the attendance is certainly trending negative - only 18,009 (and that's announced) for #3 Florida is a huge drop-off from big games in the past. That will go down as the highest-attended home game of the year; last year the Vols drew more than 18,009 seven times, including the season opener against Kennesaw State. UT hit 21,000+ against Florida and Kentucky last season.
If there was no Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo's track record would stand up well against his peers, and just a single NCAA Tournament appearance would give him more success than Houston, O'Neill, or Peterson.
There is a greater conversation here - what is a good definition of success for Tennessee Basketball? - but right now we're simply too close to Pearl for that definition to be anything other than the standard he set. And so eventually if Cuonzo Martin couldn't reach that standard, couldn't get the Vols to multiple Sweet 16s over enough years, the conversation was always going here. And I'd be willing to be Cuonzo knew it then and knows it now.
Before Bruce Pearl, a UT coach with Cuonzo's resume might face some restlessness at this point but certainly not an apathy growing this quickly and certainly not this much hostility. One NCAA Tournament appearance would put you on a very short list. But in Pearl's wake, Cuonzo's regular season accomplishments aren't as impressive and his postseason absence is jarring. It will take more than just making the tournament to win people over, and that was true long before this season began.
Like I said after the Florida loss, I'm not willing to give up on him just yet. This season isn't over, this Tennessee team should still make the tournament, and there's too much basketball left on the table. I hope people will continue to support this team and its head coach. Tennessee faces a stiff but real comparison in the collective memory of the fanbase. Now, more than ever, the only way forward is to win.
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