Cuonzo Martin to Cal, Tennessee Basketball Coaching Search Begins - Will Vols Pay to be an Elite Program?

Andy Lyons

Back on the market again, Tennessee has to pay up if it wants the success this fanbase saw once and hungers for again.

Whatever additional details we're about to get from Dave Hart at a 2:30 PM ET press conference, a few things have become crystal clear.  The relationship between Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee Basketball was broken beyond repair, at least in the actions of the head coach.  This makes it seem more likely Marquette offered the job to Steve Wojciechowski instead of Martin electing to stay in Knoxville; Marquette and Tennessee is a debatable conversation, Tennessee and California is not.  Since making the Final Four in 1960 the Golden Bears have been to two Sweet 16s (1993 and 1997) and have a single conference title.  This is a get out of town move for Cuonzo Martin.  And it suggests if it wasn't going to be now, it very easily could have been later.

There will be more time later to talk about the fanbase; the more important conversation right now involves Dave Hart and his place in the equation.  Former UT basketball beat writer Brendan F. Quinn says:

So while we waited for new contract details to emerge after Martin turned down Marquette, I'd love to hear how those conversations were actually going between Hart and Martin.  Cuonzo missed the NCAA Tournament by inches in his first two seasons, under-performed in the regular season this year but then over-performed in March, taking the Vols from the play-in game in Dayton to the Sweet 16, two points and a bad call away from the Elite Eight.  The ballad of Bruce Pearl around here is well known, but also important was the fact that Martin was a Mike Hamilton hire, not a Dave Hart hire.

The guy after Bruce was always going to have a difficult time if he didn't win like Bruce, who won at unprecedented levels for six years in Knoxville.  Cuonzo did a good job, but not a good enough job for some, and the space between has a lot to do with where we are right now.

The most important question for Tennessee going forward:  will it commit to a winning basketball program?

The word "elite" can get taken a lot of ways, but when Pearl was here I think you could make the case that Tennessee was a Top 25 national basketball program with relative ease.  We got lucky with Pearl.  But to sustain that type of success or more into the future, Tennessee has to be willing to commit financially.  No coaches are guarantees, but Tennessee absolutely has to do better than it's doing right now.

We looked at all the numbers when Cuonzo was a candidate at Marquette.  The Vols trail only Kentucky in SEC Basketball when it comes to tradition, fan support, arena attendance and prestige, and wins.  Cuonzo Martin was the 11th highest paid coach in the SEC.  Dave Hart has to either write checks, or continue to watch this program lose coaches as a stepping stone.

The next guy inherits a roster with fewer questions than the one Cuonzo took on, though the Vols certainly lack experience in the post.  Will anyone transfer definitely will become a key question.  But the next guy will also inherit the benefit of not being the guy who followed Pearl.  There will still be some of the most irrational fans who pay the least amount of attention to the actual games but will still cry in futility for Pearl, but those voices should absolutely be quieter than they have been at any point under Cuonzo with Pearl at Auburn.  Ultimately the coach here has to win, but doing what Cuonzo did in the tournament this season would certainly be enough to not only satisfy the fanbase, but move Tennessee Basketball forward.

Will the Vols pay up in the $2+ million dollar range to join college basketball's upper echelon?  Or will the Vols remain behind the pack, hoping to get lucky with another mid-major and then hoping they can keep him if his star rises?

You get what you pay for.  I hope Tennessee Basketball pays to win.

Go Vols.

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