After leading the Tennessee Volunteers’ program to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010, coach Cuonzo Martin is heading west. Martin has accepted the head coaching position at the University of California-Berkeley, the school announced Tuesday.
The announcement came shortly after Tennessee announced it was restructuring Martin’s deal after he interviewed for the Marquette job this offseason. But when taking into account the tumultuous, albeit ultimately successful, season Martin went through in Knoxville, the move makes sense.
"One man’s opinion: I don’t think Cuonzo’s decision was driven by dollars (or) was driven by necessarily a number of years. I don’t," athletic director Dave Hart said at Tennessee’s press conference. "It was a tough year. I don’t want to speak for Cuonzo, but it was a tough year for Cuonzo and (his wife) Roberta. There were a lot of distractions. You know what they were. You reported on them."
Martin began receiving pushback earlier in the 2013-14 season following the team’s disappointing start. A petition calling for the return of former coach Bruce Pearl, whose NCAA show cause penalty expires in August, was passed around Knoxville. That petition received more than 30,000 signatures.
Following their loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 22, the Volunteers sat at just 16-11 overall and 7-7 in Southeastern Conference play with a select few quality wins to earn them recognition by the NCAA Tournament committee.
Then the Vols caught fire, winning five of their final six games of the regular season and in the SEC Tournament — many victories coming by way of extravagant margins. Martin’s group, led by senior Jordan McRae and junior Jarnell Stokes, barely made the field but entered the tourney as one of the most efficient teams in the country and promptly knocked off 11-seed Iowa (First Four game), 6-seed UMass and 14-seed Mercer to reach the second weekend.
The Volunteers eventually fell to the second-seeded Michigan Wolverines, 73-71.
When the team bus returned to campus, Hart said he immediately pulled Martin off to the side and made it clear the school wanted to keep in place long-term.
"He knew without a shadow of a doubt that we wanted him to remain here. we offered Cuonzo a significant reward for what he had accomplished," Hart said. "We offered Cuonzo close to a half a million dollar raise and a two-year extension. That part had already been addressed. He would have been at $1.8 million (annually) with a two-year extension."
Coming off such a successful end-of-season run and given his treatment by the fanbase — and the fact that McRae and Stokes are now both on their way out (Stokes has declared for the draft) — Martin’s name immediately began circulating as a possible choice for multiple jobs. He even became one of the finalists in the Marquette coaching search before pulling his name out (the Big East program eventually hired long-time Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski) and reportedly reworking his deal.
But when Cal came calling, Martin did not turn it down.
"He said that in his heart, he believed that this was best for he and his family," Hart said. " … I, along with everybody else connected with our athletics department, wish him nothing but success at Cal."
The Golden Bears’ job opened up following the retirement of veteran coach Mike Montgomery.
Martin completes his Tennessee stint with a 63-41 overall record. Including his three years at Missouri State, Martin has posted 20-win campaigns in four of his first six seasons as a head coach.
And now, the 42-year-old is taking that resume of success to a California program that has enjoyed a good track record in recent years, but one looking to get over the NCAA tourney’s first-weekend hump. The Golden Bears have not advanced to the Sweet 16 since 1997.
As for Tennessee, the school will begin an "immediate national search" to find the right candidate. Pearl is, of course, off the table, as he took the head coaching job with fellow SEC program Auburn earlier this year. Still, Hart should have options.
"We will move as quickly as we reasonably can. … We’re late, in the sense that we’re right on top of Signing Day and the Final Four has come and gone," Hart said. "I think this is an extremely attractive job. We have history. We have tradition. We have one of the finest venues in the country to play college basketball."
The Volunteers program is an attractive location for plenty of big-name coaches but if they can’t land an equal or better coach than Martin, it’s going to turn into "the grass isn’t always greener" tale — especially for approximately 30,000 impatient fans.