Cuonzo Martin is in trouble. His Volunteers were expected by most to finish in or near the top 25, in the top four in the SEC, and very much in the NCAA Tournament. At 6-4, with three losses to teams outside the RPI top 100 and a woeful SEC schedule still yet to play, it’s doubtful that even a great run by the Volunteers would earn Martin his first trip to the Big Dance.
And if the Vols don’t go dancing will Tennessee give Martin a fourth season at the helm? Does the school even have the cash to buy him out if president Jimmy Cheek and AD Dave Hart wish to? The school has paid off Phillip Fulmer, Derek Dooley and AD Mike Hamilton since 2008. Tennessee also gave Bruce Pearl some walking money when he was fired… and he was fired for cause.
If nothing else, the UT athletic department has displayed the post-conversion generosity of Ebenezer Scrooge in recent years.
Martin’s contract was not extended this past year. After this season he will have just two years remaining on a $1.3 million deal. Assuming UT does have a little bit of cash to spend and Martin does not reach the tourney — it’s early, but the SEC looks really bad — then the question becomes: Will Tennessee try to hire Pearl back?
The powers-that-be at UT let Pearl go only after it became evident the NCAA would firebomb their program if they attempted to keep him (which the school initially tried to do). Once fired, Pearl was handed a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators about a barbecue that welcomed some underage recruits in to his home. Lying to the NCAA has been a major no-no for years. Ask Jim Tressel who was handed a five-year show-cause. (Missouri’s Frank Haith was lucky to avoid a show-cause penalty this offseason, but as we wrote at the time, the Miami investigation was so flawed we believe the NCAA went easy on those involved in order to just close the book on the whole affair.)
In addition to the lying and the barbecue, the NCAA viewed Pearl’s phone call to the father of Aaron Craft — one of the barbecue attendees — as an attempted cover-up.
While there are still some issues between Pearl and the NCAA and Pearl and UT officials, there are no such hard feelings between Pearl and the majority of the Vol fanbase. The coach was the first man to take Tennessee to an Elite Eight. He had success against Florida, Kentucky and Memphis. He filled Thompson-Boling Arena. And when the NCAA came after him he achieved full-on Robin Hood status in East Tennessee.
So now the same Tennessee officials who fired Pearl in the program’s best interest three years ago — the school got a slap on the wrist while Pearl and his coaches were handed show-cause penalties — could be facing a tough decision come March.
If Martin flames out, UT could re-hire Pearl. His penalty ends in August. Assistants would have to run the shop for a few months, but that’s a small price to pay for a proven winner. Now, a lot of people would have to put on fake smiles at the press conference, but business is business and Pearl was good for business. Most of the Vol fanbase would surely rejoice if he were to return. The NCAA might have a different reaction. Tennessee would be hiring a guy who lied to its investigators. Think the NCAA wouldn’t have folks snooping around Knoxville on a regular basis?
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