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Cuonzo Martin’s departure highlights Tennessee's immense level of dysfunction

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Cal hires Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin as coach
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After a Sweet 16 run with Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin is headed to California. (AP Photo)

It is time to test the Tennessee River water that flows past Knoxville.

Test it for toxic levels of dysfunction.

There is something in the water, or the soil – or, most likely, the people – at the University of Tennessee that has turned the athletic department into a transient, turmoil-ridden place. Basketball coach Cuonzo Martin’s departure Tuesday for California is just the latest huh? moment for a school that has been buffeted by them in recent years.

Martin’s successor will be the third Tennessee hoops coach since 2011. Butch Jones is the fourth football coach since 2008. Dave Hart is the second athletic director in the last three years.

Absolutely nothing is rock solid on Rocky Top these days. It is high time for a reality check.

Tennessee football has had five losing seasons in the past six years – and the one winning season was 7-6. It was authored by Lane Kiffin, who immediately fled for USC after that season. The fans who couldn’t wait to get rid of Phil Fulmer now look back wistfully at those halcyon days, when the Volunteers could do things like beat Vanderbilt and occasionally even compete with Florida and Alabama.

As the football program slipped, and then finally crumbled under massive mistake hire Derek Dooley, basketball became the Big Orange rally point. Bruce Pearl reinvigorated the program, winning games and earning hero status by being an unabashed showman. He took the Volunteers to the Sweet 16 for only the second time in school history, in 2008, and then to their first Elite Eight two years later.

And then came the barbecue. And the lying to the NCAA. And Pearl’s firing.

In came Cuonzo Martin, a Gene Keady guy who is cut from a different cloth than Pearl – less personality, more rules compliance. After a honeymoon that barely lasted long enough to carry the bride across the threshold, the complaining from the fans commenced.

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Tennessee's fan base never really embraced Cuonzo Martin. (AP Photo)

They said Martin was squandering the talent Pearl left him. They said he wasn’t recruiting enough talent to win when Pearl’s players were gone. They said he couldn’t coach. They said his teams were boring. They went so far as to circulate an online petition this season urging the school to fire Martin and rehire Pearl, who left amid NCAA disgrace.

Martin’s record in three seasons: 63-41 overall, 32-20 in Southeastern Conference play. Martin’s winning percentages: .606 overall, .615 in SEC games. The highlight was this year’s run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed – a run aided by facing No. 14 Mercer in the round of 32, and nearly ended in the play-in round before an overtime escape against Iowa.

Pearl’s record his last three seasons: 68-37 overall, 29-19 in SEC play. Pearl’s winning percentages: .648 overall, .604 in SEC games. The highlight of those final three years was that run to the Elite Eight as a No. 6 seed – a run also aided by facing a No. 14 seed in the round of 32 (in this case Ohio) and a narrow round-of-64 escape over San Diego State.

So there is not a lot of difference there, but apparently it was a world of difference to the fans. Attendance during Pearl’s final three seasons averaged 18,252. Attendance in Martin’s three seasons averaged 16,218, bottoming out at 15,475 fans per home game this year. (A number admittedly skewed downward by the fact that Tennessee did not host Kentucky for the first time in decades – thank you, conference expansion.)

Then there was this plot twist: Before Martin could launch the Volunteers on a surprising run to within an iffy charge call of the Elite Eight, Pearl returned from NCAA exile to get the job at Auburn. Not only was he back, he was back in Martin’s backyard. That only added to the audible fan angst in Knoxville.

So it should not have come as a complete shock that when Tennessee’s NCAA tourney surge ended, Martin’s eyes started to wander.

He kicked the tires, checked under the hood and even adjusted the mirrors on Marquette before pulling out – a flirtation that was widely perceived as seeking leverage with Tennessee. Maybe it was at the time (he agreed to an enhanced contract earlier this month), but it also should have been an indication that Martin was not at all enchanted with life in Knoxville.

Tuesday we found out how disenchanted he was, when he took the California job. Tennessee players took to Twitter immediately after the news broke to make clear what they felt about fan treatment of their coach.

From star guard Jordan McRae: "Can't treat people any kind of way and expect good in return."

From forward Jeronne Maymon: "Not even surprised... It was just a matter of time! #RESPECT"

Cal’s search literally was all over the map – from Mark Few of Gonzaga to Gregg Marshall of Wichita State to Chris Mack of Xavier to former pro coach Eric Musselman. The one person the school appeared to have no serious interest in hiring was the guy strongly recommended by retiring coach Mike Montgomery – top assistant Travis DeCuire. Then it finally settled on Martin, who has no natural ties to the school or the Pac-12.

This has all the makings of a search-firm arranged marriage, and Cal did indeed employ DHR International to aid in its search.

Perhaps it will work out for both parties – the Cal job is a good one, and Martin has five straight winning seasons at two schools (Missouri State preceded Tennessee) on his résumé.

The bigger question is what direction Tennessee now turns. This is a school leaking prestige and reeking of unrealistic entitlement.

A delusional fan base believed it was going to land Jon Gruden as its football coach in 2012. Instead it wound up being snubbed by Louisville coach Charlie Strong. Tennessee ended up with a good hire in Butch Jones, but you would have thought the school was settling for the guy at Lenoir-Rhyne by the reaction.

If the same deluded thought process holds, Vols fans will be expecting Shaka Smart to crawl to Knoxville any minute. Or Gregg Marshall to take a pay cut to coach the Vols.

Reality is, turmoil-ridden Tennessee has to prove itself to a quality coach now. Not the other way around.

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