How much is Tennessee willing to commit to be a big-time basketball program?
This question must be asked before we can really talk about who the man to lead the program into the future should be. Are Dave Hart, the athletic department, and the university willing to commit to pursue the kind of basketball success we have seen is possible in Knoxville?
If the answer is yes, then the Vols will pay their head basketball coach more than $1.3 million dollars per year. If the answer is no, then Tennessee will remain somewhere in the neighborhood of 10th among SEC basketball coaching salaries. And then the next time our head coach leads a team to the Sweet 16, he too will be courted by a program with a greater commitment to winning and the dollars behind it. And he too would be foolish to not listen and then do what is best for his family.
If the answer is no, Tennessee becomes a stepping stone job.
Is Tennessee a better job than Marquette right now? I think there are compelling arguments both ways, and the jobs are actually more similar than we might think. Recent success is a push: Marquette made the Sweet 16 three consecutive years under Buzz Williams from 2011-13; the Vols have now been four times in the last eight years. Both schools have earned one Elite Eight and one conference title in the last ten years.
Both schools have been traditionally successful but overshadowed in power conferences: Kentucky is the crown jewel of the SEC and Florida its most successful program in the new millennium; Georgetown may be the only bigger dog left in the Big East, but until this year Marquette was also contending with UConn and Syracuse. Marquette does clearly have us beat in head-to-head traditional success with a National Championship in 1977 and a Final Four appearance as recent as 2003 with Dwyane Wade, but it took eight years for the Golden Eagles to get back to the Sweet 16.
Because Marquette plays in the Milwaukee Bucks' arena, Tennessee's usual facilities advantage is negated. Last year the Vols finished 8th in average attendance nationally, Marquette 15th. The Big East is significantly weaker after conference realignment and seems less stable than the SEC, but the new Big East still finished with a better conference RPI than the SEC this year. The Big East was fourth in RPI and put four teams in the NCAA Tournament counting Xavier in Dayton; the SEC was seventh in RPI and put three teams in the NCAA Tournament including the Vols.
Whether you want to argue for Marquette or Tennessee as the better job, I don't think the gap is so wide to make a significant difference. Remember, Tennessee took Marquette's coach in 1994 after Kevin O'Neill took them to their first Sweet 16 in 15 years. So what's the biggest difference between Marquette and Tennessee? Money.
Buzz Williams was reportedly set to make more than $4 million dollars in the next two years. This story from Brian Hamilton at Sports Illustrated also states Marquette spends more than $10 million annually on basketball expenses.
And that's why Tennessee has to decide. Are we going to be a big time basketball program or not? If we don't pay the guy we have now, will we pay someone else? Or will we hover around $1.3 million per year, the lower third of a league we have won more games in than anyone except Kentucky with its second biggest arena?
Tennessee also has one of the SEC's most vocal basketball fanbases. It is a fanbase still present to the tune of 15,000+, though less present than the recent past. Some of the loudest voices often come from its youngest segment; fans who were oblivious before 2006, some of whom did this program no favors with their voices this year. But it is also full of fans who still showed up enough to put the Vols in the Top 25 in national attendance even before 2006, and kept showing up this year even when things were very much on the fence. We have our share of crazies and we have our share of irrationals like anyone else. You build an arena seating 21,000, you're going to get some quantity in those departments. We also have our share of the least helpful: fans who didn't watch a game all year until mid-March, but still voiced their unrealistic favor for the previous coach by mid-December.
The truth is the only way the next guy was going to be received by a significant percentage of this fanbase was to win like the last guy. And those standards were only realized in the last two weeks. If the Sweet 16 was a reasonable goal, this team achieved it. And the truth is, Tennessee basketball still has a good, passionate fanbase. But now it might lose its head coach to another good and passionate fanbase with similar goals, but a program with greater commitment.
For what it's worth, I think Tennessee should pay Cuonzo Martin. I think the Vols should make him a fair offer, and then offer a little more as a token of our appreciation after what he went through this year. The most up-to-date information I could find on the salaries of SEC basketball coaches is this story from the Knoxville News-Sentinel last year. You can add in Bruce Pearl at $2.2 million with Auburn. For the sake of round numbers, if Tennessee paid Cuonzo Martin $2.0 million per year, I think he would fall in the correct place in the current SEC pecking order. He would earn more than his contemporaries who have never been to the Sweet 16 at their current stop except for Mike Anderson, and you can make solid arguments for all the other coaches in the SEC above $2.0 million having earned what they are paid.
A raise from $1.3 to $2.0 million would be a 53.8% raise. Is a Sweet 16 appearance worth that much? Maybe, maybe not, but a commitment to winning basketball is.
I think Tennessee's best move is to pay the man who is currently in charge and just took this program to the Sweet 16. More than getting hot over the course of one long weekend, Cuonzo Martin is a proven 20 games per season winner. The kind of basketball Tennessee would be paying for would not be completely satisfied by 20 win regular seasons. But Martin just proved he is capable of satisfying the most important requirements in March. All of this built on top of his character and stability in an athletic department in need of both.
None of us know with 100% certainty if Cuonzo Martin is the long-term answer for Tennessee after three years, 20 wins a year, and one Sweet 16, but none of us know of anyone else who would be either. Sure things do not exist. I would rather pay the man who earned his stripes and success in Knoxville than start over with someone else. I think we should believe in Cuonzo Martin. Either way, Tennessee has to commit to the kind of success it wants. Pay for winning basketball consistently, or lose its head coach to programs who will after getting just one taste of it.