I’ll be the first to admit it. In March of 2011, I thought Cuonzo Martin’s name was “Quanzo,” I had no idea there such a thing as “Missouri State,” and I firmly believed we were going back to the Buzz Peterson, Jerry Green, Kevin O’Neil and Wade Houston era.
I was dead wrong. Along with a second-place finish in the SEC and few major upsets, Martin is now the most stable figure in an athletics department that’s at the lowest it’s ever been.
Considering Tennessee’s history, especially it’s recent history, this is a stunning turn.
Pre-2008, Tennessee athletics rivaled any in the country. Post-2008, Tennessee athletics is at an all-time low. The search is on for football coach No. 4 in five years, the NCAA just levied more sanctions for Lane Kiffin violations, Pat Summitt is battling dementia and will one day lose all knowledge of her achievements and significance, and former AD Mike Hamilton was fired after being quite possibly the worst athletic director in school history.
(Oh yeah, and we lost our baseball coach. Does it get any worse than losing your baseball coach?)
Amidst all this turmoil, though, Martin has emerged as not only one of the up-and-coming coaches in the nation, but one whose willing to be loyal to Tennessee. After losing Summit and being burned by Kiffin, this has resonated with a frustrated fanbase.
What sets Martin apart from other Tennessee coaches, however, is his commanding presence in a reeling athletics department. His quiet persona could not be more different than Pearl, and his insistence on letting his players performance do the talking is the polar opposite to trash-talking Kiffin, yet Martin is thriving at UT equal to or greater than his predecessors.
He’s also been unafraid to step on toes in the media, calling out underachieving players for more effort and even calling out fans for more support at the home games.
As Dave Hart labors over who to take over the football program, he would do well to model his hire on what’s working in men’s basketball. While Gruden sightings and dollar signs fly around campus, Martin is quietly putting together the most dominant team in Knoxville without hype or celebrity.