Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cuonzo: Patience is a Virtue

When Tennessee hired Cuonzo Martin to replace beloved coach Bruce Pearl, the announcement was met with a universal, “Who?”

After the messy and heartbreaking divorce from Pearl, Tennesseans waited anxiously for the UT administration to capitalize on the rebirth of big orange basketball and find a knockout coach to be the envy of the SEC. In his brief tenure, Pearl’s teams fought for a spot among the nation’s best, went toe to toe with legendary coaches and programs, and earned victories over Kansas, Pitt, Villanova, and Ohio State. Most importantly, Pearl finished with a 20-10 record against Memphis, Florida, and Vanderbilt.

So when Pearl’s replacement turned out to be a guy named Cuonzo, needless to say there were no parades or parties in the streets.

It doesn’t help that Martin was the final hire of the disastrous Mike Hamilton era, leaving increased pressure on a coach who’s previous position was in the Missouri Valley Conference. However, the Tennessee faithful would do well to be patient with Martin.

For a program whose better days go back to the “Ernie and Bernie” show, Pearl earned cult-like status (i.e. “The Bruce is Loose”) for his flamboyant personality and endearing ability to get under the skin of opposing coaches. But where Pearl’s personality earned devotees among even the most apathetic fans, Martin seems to want his results on the court to speak for him. He doesn’t seem interested in sound bites, endorsement deals, or even being well liked. At the first SEC media day of the season, Martin had the following exchange with a Kentucky media member after he was asked if he knew Bruce Pearl: (from govolsextra)

“‘I know Coach Pearl.’

‘Do you?’ the reporter replied skeptically.

‘Oh yeah,’ Martin said.

‘You look like I’m accusing you of something,’ the reporter said, fishing for something.

Martin unleashed a hearty laugh to end the exchange.”

(It helps Martin’s curt response was to a Kentucky reporter.)

Moments like this won’t mean a thing if the Vols don’t produce on the court, but they’re huge if they do. It says Martin is cool under pressure. It says Martin doesn’t give a damn what the media (or anyone else) thinks of him. It says Martin, like Pearl, is unwilling to back down to anyone, especially Kentucky.

And for Tennessee fans mired in the darkest era in its athletic history, it says Martin is worth getting excited over.

Martin took a Missouri State team from worst to first in their conference in just three years. He convinced freshman signees Quinton Chievous and Josh Richardson to stick with the Vols. He asserted himself with current Tennessee players with statements like, “I don’t know if there are many options outside of buying in.”

The players, so far, have responded. Newly christened point guard Trae Golden scored 46 points in the first two games of the season, and Jeronne Maymon earned his first double-double as a Vol against Louisiana Monroe.

And most importantly, his team has convincingly won the games they were supposed to win. It’s early, but a positive start was critical for Martin.

Tennessee may get crushed by Duke tomorrow in Maui, and the team may finish the season 11th in the SEC as predicted. But Martin has shown he can make progress with a struggling team, and time maybe all he needs to continue the success Pearl began.

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