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Cuonzo Martin and Fans Behaving Badly

The Tennessee fan base has not been at our best in the last three years in our treatment of Cuonzo Martin. What have we done wrong, and what could we do better?

Jonathan Daniel

If you've been anywhere near the Vol corners of the Internet in the last day or two, you know that Marquette reportedly is interested in signing Cuonzo Martin to replace Buzz Williams as head basketball coach. And there's a strong consensus emerging that Martin is listening, or at least should listen if the interest is genuine. Why should he? Well, there are the obvious reasons: Marquette spends more on their basketball program than Tennessee does, and basketball is top dog on campus there in a way it never will be at Tennessee. But those aren't the only reasons. It's not like football schools (*cough* Florida) have been unable to retain good basketball coaches. In fact, those are usually not the first reasons cited. The first reasons cited for why Martin should be eager to leave Tennessee are almost always the fans.

Accordingly, the entire situation has turned into a bit of a referendum on fan behavior. And it should--the consensus is that Tennessee fans have behaved badly towards their head coach, and it's difficult in this case to argue with the consensus. Martin has been nothing if not classy as head coach, with an impeccable character and a focus on academics and off-the-court reputation being some of the biggest positives of his tenure. And fans, in response, have not been. So if Martin wants to move on to a different school with a different fan base, it wouldn't be because he can't handle the pressures of the job. Look at his backstory and tell me he can't handle some ignorant fans or pressure to win. It would be because, as most people, he would rather not have to deal with unnecessary irritants, if given the option. And no one should blame him for that.

But, while the Tennessee fan base should send Martin a collective mea culpa, what else should Tennessee fans--or fans of other schools--take from the situation? While there's a consensus that something behavioral has gone wrong, there's much less discussion of exactly what kind of behavior is appropriate, and what kind is not. And when one of your writers is a philosophy student, that's the kind of gap in the debate that will be filled quickly.

I'm not here to write the book on fan etiquette. But almost all of the readers here are sports fans, and most are Tennessee fans, and it's time for us to ask ourselves how we, as fans, should act. I'm here to start asking the questions, and give my initial thoughts towards answers. I hope we can keep the discussion going in the comments and work towards a better understanding of our role and our code.

The three main criticisms I've heard of UT fans are as follows: having unrealistic expectations, actively campaigning for another coach while Martin was still head coach, and denying Martin the resources to succeed. Let's consider them in turn.

Having unrealistic expectations.

The argument here is fans expected a level of performance in Martin's third year that was entirely unrealistic, and that having such unrealistic expectations is both unfair to the current coach (Martin) and off-putting to future coaches. Whether it's off-putting to future coaches I cannot say (although I'll point out that there were few fanbases more irrational than Alabama football in the mid-2000s, and they landed the best coach in college football and had pretty much all of their unrealistic expectations fulfilled), so I'll focus on whether it was unfair to Martin.

Fan expectations are a tricky balance. If they're too high, they can create a hostile work environment for coaches. If they're too low, they can allow mediocre coaches to hang around far too long and can lower the status of the program. We had good discussions on this subject by Will and Chris way back in February, and this should be a continuation of that discussion.

Unrealistic expectations are part and parcel of being a fan. It's an expectation that fans will overrate their own team, and so doing so doesn't make Tennessee at all unique, nor does it make the Tennessee job less palatable than any other. So the real argument has to be not about the expectations but about the level of criticism that arises when expectations aren't met.

But expressing criticism as a fan is not bad behavior either. Some may argue that true fans will never criticize their head coach, but this is a naive view that errs on the low expectations side of the balance. If there were never any criticisms of Derek Dooley, he would still be coaching here, and that would be. . . well, let's just say I shouldn't finish that sentence. But on the other side of the coin, if fans were calling for the firing of Butch Jones because he went 5-7 with Dooley's players and a brutal schedule, that would be grossly unfair. So again we return to expectations, and whether the criticism is realistic.

In Martin's case, it's hard for me to understand the complaints that the mid-season criticism was unfair or irrational. Perhaps the way it was put was unfair (and we'll talk more about that), but the criticism itself seemed on the whole reasonable. Tennessee fans expect to see their team in the second weekend of the tournament at least once every four years. Given that four starters from this year's team were expected to leave at the end of the season, this was the year to accomplish that goal, and the Vols were, as recently as late February, falling dreadfully short. There was certainly room for arguments for giving Martin another season to turn things around, but given the Vols' level of play, some criticism was warranted, including discussion of whether he should remain as head coach at Tennessee. This is not the place to make claims about whether the "Fire Cuonzo" or "Keep Cuonzo" crowd had more of the evidence on their side (and most of you know where I fell in the debate) but on whether the debate itself was justified. Others may disagree, but I've yet to hear a good argument that merely having the discussion was unfair to Martin, and as such, I think this criticism of the fans is overblown.

Campaigning for another coach while Martin was head coach

Even if criticism of Martin was justified, there's still the further question of whether the way the criticism occurred was justified. While Martin was still employed at Tennessee, there was a petition to hire Bruce Pearl, a coach Tennessee had previously fired for lying to the NCAA and to his employers.

There are two questions here. First, is it acceptable to openly call for another coach before firing the current coach? Second, was it acceptable to call for this particular other coach?

The first question calls back memories of the push for Jon Gruden, which occurred well before the firing of Derek Dooley. There are two obvious differences between the two cases. First, while the Gruden talk did light up the message boards, it never escalated to the level of full-blown petition. Second, Dooley had neither the success of Martin nor the class of Martin.

Feel free to argue otherwise if you feel I'm off-base here, but I don't feel like the pro-Gruden sentiment was unfair to Dooley. But I am open to both the argument that escalating to the level of petition was unfair and that Martin was owed more than Dooley, because Martin gave more than Dooley. My inclination would be to say that for both of these reasons, the petition went too far and was unfair to Martin, but I have no more evidence for this than a somewhat skeevy feeling about petitioning for another coach while a current coach is employed and a feeling that Martin deserved better. If you have further reasons for either side, feel free to chime in.

The second question is a trickier one, and I will save it for further evaluation under a different heading.

Denying the resources to succeed

This is not a criticism of the everyday fan but of the big money boosters. The dominant rumor is that boosters denied Martin the use of their planes for recruiting. Of course, the boosters have no obligation to lend planes to Tennessee coaches. But if they do so for all other Tennessee coaches, not doing so for one coach is much more than expressing displeasure, it is actively undercutting his ability to succeed. Voting with your wallet is fine. If you're upset with the direction a team is going, not buying tickets or donating money is a completely reasonable way to make your voice heard. But actively undercutting a coach's ability to succeed is something entirely different, and as I see it, it's not something one should do as a fan.

This category, of course, rests on rumor, so whether there was actual bad behavior depends on whether the rumor is true. But it seems to me that it falls into the category of "if true, then bad." Again, feel free to give counterarguments in the comments if you disagree.

So ends the discussion of the three major complaints, but I have a fourth:

Never giving Martin a chance

As I've said many times, here and elsewhere, criticizing Martin this year was reasonable. But viewing his entire tenure as that of an interim coach until Bruce Pearl's show-cause expired is something entirely different. Martin overachieved his first year with a bunch of players who did nothing under Pearl, and there were many who were unhappy, not because he was coaching badly, but because he wasn't Pearl.

Liking Bruce Pearl is not bad behavior. Not wanting to see him fired is not bad behavior. But refusing to give Martin a chance for the sole reason that he is not Pearl strikes me as bad behavior. There are lots of things a coach can do to lose fan support (including some things he can do before he was hired, like post a losing record in the WAC), but calling for a coach's head for the sole reason that you didn't think the previous coach should have been fired is massively unfair to the replacement, in this case Martin.

And it's even worse in this case, because the past coach was fired for dishonesty, and his replacement is one of the most stand-up guys you'll see in the profession. Calling for Pearl in Cuonzo's first season screams "We don't care if you can win, we'd rather have the liar coaching us."

This is not a referendum on Pearl and whether he should have been fired. This is not a referendum on whether lying is a big sin or a small one. But once a new coach is hired, it's time to move on. Failing to do so is, in my opinion, the biggest sin of the Tennessee fan base these last three years. Criticism of Martin for not winning enough in year three may be reasonable, but criticizing him for not being Bruce Pearl was never reasonable and never will be. Tennessee owed Martin better.

These are my thoughts. They were not handed down on Mt. Sinai, and they are not the product of years of investigation into the issue. But I'd like to think they are reasonable, and I'd like to hope they can contribute to the discussion on Rocky Top Talk and in the fan base in general. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments. Go Vols.