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Cuonzo Martin was wise to leave Tennessee, but was Cal smart to hire him?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger
Tennessee AD Hart reworking Martin's contract
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Cuonzo Martin (AP)

At the same time as Tennessee was fighting to scrape together enough wins to make the NCAA tournament in late February, a petition with more than 30,000 signatures circulated the Internet urging the Vols to bring Bruce Pearl back after the season.

Those Tennessee fans won't get Pearl but they will get a new coach.

Cuonzo Martin is leaving Tennessee after three seasons to replace the newly retired Mike Montgomery as head coach at Cal. Martin led the Vols on a surprise run to the Sweet 16 last month after narrowly slipping into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed.

Leaving Tennessee now is a shrewd move by Martin because he was in a tough spot following the most successful coach the Vols had ever hired.

In six seasons in Knoxville, Pearl led Tennessee to six straight NCAA tournaments, ascended to No. 1 in the nation briefly in 2008 and reached the Elite Eight in 2010. Martin was never fully able to escape Pearl's shadow and win over the Tennessee fan base while leading the Vols to a pair of NITs prior to this year's NCAA tournament run. 

Worse yet, the pressure was likely to intensify on Martin given that Pearl is back in the SEC at Auburn and that the Vols are probably headed for a rebuilding year next season. Four of Tennessee's five leading scorers are leaving including graduating senior Jordan McRae and NBA draft-bound junior Jarnell Stokes.

Judging by the reaction of the outgoing Tennessee players, they clearly understand and even empathize with their coach's decision to bolt.

Tweeted McRae, "Can't treat people any kind of way and expect good in return."

Added Jeronne Maymon, "Not even surprised... It was just a matter of time! #RESPECT"

It's clear Martin wanted out of Knoxville considering he was heavily involved in the Marquette search before the Golden Eagles went with Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski instead. The bigger question is whether Cal is making a wise choice hiring a coach with minimal recruiting ties to the West Coast. 

Martin grew up in Saint Louis, played at Purdue and served as an assistant at Purdue and a head coach at Missouri State before leaving for Knoxville in 2011. He'll clearly need to hire assistants with connections to either the talent-rich Oakland Soliders AAU program or the Los Angeles area high school or club scene, both of which are crucial talent pipelines Cal must tap into in order to be successful.

Martin's track record as an assistant and head coach was strong prior to this stint in Knoxville. He recruited Purdue standouts JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore during his tenure as an assistant at his alma mater and he led Missouri State to a Valley regular season title in his final year there. At the same time, his time at Tennessee was largely underwhelming, especially considering the Sweet 16 run was fueled by wins over slumping Iowa, over-seeded UMass and 14th-seeded Mercer.

It's clear Martin had good reason to want out of Tennessee. It's also clear the situation he inherits at Cal is fairly promising with Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird, David Kravish and a handful of other talented players returning from a 21-win NIT team.

Now it's up to Martin to prove Cal made a shrewd gamble betting on him as opposed to hiring a Montgomery disciple or someone with West Coast ties.  

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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