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Martin’s Departure Has Tennessee Chasing Its Tail Again

dog-chasing-tailHere they go again.

In Knoxville today, the private planes are being warmed up for yet another coaching search (assuming the boosters allow Tennessee’s AD to use them).  Cuonzo Martin’s surprise decision to go to California with an aching in his heart creates the umpteenth coaching vacancy at UT in the past decade.  Here’s the school’s scorecard in case you haven’t been able to keep track of all the major comings and goings in the Volunteers’ men’s athletic department:

 

* Basketball coach Buzz Peterson — fired March 2005

* Baseball coach Rod Delmonico — fired June 2007

* Football coach Phillip Fulmer — fired November 2008

* Football coach Lane Kiffin — left January 2010

* Basketball coach Bruce Pearl — fired over NCAA violations March 2011

* Baseball coach Todd Raleigh — fired May 2011

* Athletic Director Mike Hamilton — resigned June 2011

* Football coach Derek Dooley — fired November 2012

 

Now I don’t know about you, but that makes Tennessee’s athletic department look rather dysfunctional to most unaffiliated observers.  For example, here’s some of the national reaction that average fans — and coaches — are seeing across the country today:

 

Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com:  ”Can you imagine?  You sign two five-star prospects in a span of three recruiting classes, win more games each year than the year before, mold a roster into a team that will soon make the Sweet 16, and, still, literally tens of thousands of your own fans have taken time out of their day to sign a petition requesting that you be replaced by the man you replaced three years earlier.”

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports:  ”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 is just the latest huh? moment for a school that has been buffeted by them in recent years.”

Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com:  ”In a lot of places (Martin’s results) would merit a raise, a contract extension and a heap of praise.  At Tennessee, it got Martin a heap of nothing.  Impatient fans and lukewarm administrators never really gave Martin a chance — Indiana fans, with a bit more basketball dog in the fight, gave Tom Cream a longer leash.  And now the Vols got what they stopped wanting and exactly what they deserved.”

 

The first response to the national media from many Vol fans will be one big “who cares?” and a string of “yeah, buts.”  But no school’s boosters and fans really want the sporting world to view their athletic department as some sort of sad joke.  And unfortunately for the faithful on Rocky Top that is exactly how Tennessee is being viewed today.

Martin was never embraced in Knoxville for one reason — he wasn’t Pearl.  As soon as the NCAA came down on Pearl he became to some UT fans their own “Lost Cause” hero, a combination of generals Albert Sydney Johnston and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  ”Why we’d have never succumbed to Yankee tyranny had our beloved leader in gray not been taken from us so grievously!”

Martin got better each year in three at Missouri State.  He got better each year in three at Tennessee, too.  He wound up three points shy of the Elite Eight last month.  But he still wasn’t Pearl on or off the court.  So the anti-Martin crowd simply changed their battle cry as the Vols advanced in the tournament — “Yes, but we underachieved in the regular season.”  So when a team lives up to preseason expectations at tourney time the regular season becomes the problem?  Kentucky fans are bonkers about hoops, but I don’t see anyone running John Calipari away for following the very same path Martin went down last season — disappointing regular season, expectations basically met in the postseason.

The greatest irony is that Martin was the only guy to do any real winning on Rocky Top in years.  Pearl won an SEC basketball title in 2008.  That is the only championship for Tennessee in a major men’s sport in 15 years.  Vol baseball last took home the SEC trophy in 1995.  Vol football hasn’t been crowned league champ since 1998.

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Perfect Semester Allows Tennessee To Avoid APR Penalties

a_plusWhen Butch Jones arrived in Knoxville last December he inherited a mess.  A total mess.  An on- and off-the-field mess.

Transfers, wash-outs and plain ol’ poor academic performance had left Tennessee staring down the barrel of an NCAA bowl ban if its football team didn’t improve in the classroom.  Yesterday, Jones announced that his squad had scored a perfect 1,000 for the spring semester, a score high enough to fend off any sanctions.

 

“It directly affects recruiting, it affects our football program and it’s something that we’ve been dealing with for a long time.  I think it’s probably one of the greatest victories we’ve had in Tennessee football…

This is an issue since Day One that we walked in here as a coaching staff that opponents have used against us in the recruiting process.  There’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of effort from individuals behind the scenes that have made this come to fruition.  I tell you what, I’m extremely proud.”

 

Now, the first thing that most of us think when we see a positive story about academics is: “Yeah, right… They were given those grades.”  Be honest, that’s what you thought.

But the fact of the matter is if UT wanted to cook the books it could have done so long before NCAA sanctions were thisclose to being dropped on its football program.  So kudos to Jones and his staff on this one.  From recruiting to academics to signs of improvement on the field, the Vols’ new coach appears to be the first right move made by the folks on Rocky Top in many a year.

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UT’s Jones Breaks Out Crying Babies And Car Alarms At Practice

crying-babiesTennessee’s football team got a taste of something new during this morning practice session — annoying sounds.

Rather than using piped in crowd noise — or ear-splitting loops of Rocky Top, which other teams use before facing the Vols — new UT coach Butch Jones went for something even more distracting as the Vol offense approached the end zone.  According to The Knoxville News Sentinel’s Evan Woodbery, the loud sounds included:

 

*  A crying baby

*  A screeching siren

*  The jets of an airplane taking off

*  And “a car alarm wailing incessantly”

 

Jones had promised before spring practice began that he would use some unusual noises and sounds to try and break his team’s concentration during drills and scrimmages.  Sounds — get it? — like he’s making good on his promise.

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UT Search To Start All Over From Scratch? Looks That Way

Maybe Tennessee should have given Derek Dooley another year after all.  While the Volunteers’ search for a coach hasn’t had the ups and downs of Arkansas’ search (yet), things are looking pretty rocky right now on Rocky Top.  With Mike Gundy rebuffing Tennessee Wednesday morning and Charlie Strong turning down another Vol job offer on Wednesday night – UT will likely claim they never made an offer to either coach, of course — the Vols rolled a pair of snake eyes.

For Volunteer fans in need of some perspective, Alabama was ditched at the altar by West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez in late 2006.  Then Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe pulled his name out of contention.  Yes, Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe.  But then on January 1st, 2007, Tide officials finally met with some guy named Nick Saban.  You know the rest.

Earlier this week, many Arkansas fans were screaming for AD Jeff Long’s noggin after the Hogs had apparently been rebuffed by Les Miles, Gary Patterson, Chris Petersen, and Mike Gundy.  Then Long landed Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema from out of the nowhere and the AD was once again a hero and the Razorbacks were once again relevant.

In other words, things can change pretty quickly.  But that won’t make things easier for Tennessee fans.  Their program has a 100,000-seat stadium, a new $45 million football complex, is second all-time to Alabama in terms of SEC titles, and ranks eighth in the nation in all-time football wins.  Yet today they were dissed by two coaches, one of which would rather stay at Louisville.

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Could Tennessee Have Landed Geno Smith?

Alabama landed a highly-touted recruit last August when cornerback Geno Smith from St. Pius X High School in Atlanta committed to the Crimson Tide.

Smith, who signed with Alabama in February, chose the Tide over such schools as Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Texas and Southern California.

Alabama should be thankful it didn’t have to beat out Tennessee for Smith’s services. That’s because in a Q&A with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith revealed a secret about his recruitment.

“I really liked Tennessee,” Smith said. “All my junior year, I would come home and play ‘Rocky Top’ on YouTube and then hit repeat.”

That kind of interest could have given Tennessee an advantage in its recruitment of Smith. That’s why he told the AJC his biggest disappointment from the recruiting process was the lack of communication from the Vols.

“A coaching change happened with whomever recruited my area during my junior year,” Smith said. “I didn’t know who was recruiting me until later that spring. By that time, I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to shift it to Alabama and Auburn.’”

The coaching change Smith referenced involved former defensive line coach Chuck Smith, who left Derek Dooley’s staff following the 2010 season. It’s unclear who on the staff was responsible for recruiting Smith during the spring of his junior year.

It’s puzzling why Tennessee would be slow to recruit Smith, who’s ranked the nation’s No. 2 cornerback and 31st overall prospect in the 2012 class by ESPNU. Atlanta, which is less than a four-hour drive from Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, is also a city of focus in recruiting for the Vols.

It’s possible Smith wasn’t ranked as highly on Tennessee’s board as most other schools, although that would be surprising. There’s also no guarantee Smith would have signed with the Vols even if they had begun to recruit him earlier in the process.

But there’s a reason Smith was disappointed in the slow recruitment from Tennessee. Vols fans will likely join him in that frustration.

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3 SEC Signing Classes Ranked Among Rivals’ “Unlucky 13″

Nothing can wipe out a signing class like coaching turnover.  Well, that and thuggery.

In a Rivals.com piece yesterday ranking the 13 unluckiest — initially highly-ranked — signing classes, coaching transitions and off-field shenanigans led three SEC recruiting classes to be labeled as duds.

Among them:


1.  Tennessee, 2009 — The unluckiest class on the list.  This one was Lane Kiffin’s crew.  Arrests, violations of team rules and eventual transfers — when Kiffin left — decimated the class.

6.  Tennessee, 2007 — Phillip Fulmer’s next to last class was filled with busts as well.  Academics and players who never even arrived on campus hurt.  When some others were disappeared by Kiffin when he took over in ’09, things only got worse.

12.  Florida, 2008 — Transfer, transfer, transfer, transfer, drug-related dismissal.  At the height of Urban Meyer’s Gator tenure, he brought in a class that’s better known for underachieving than achieving.  Again, it’s no wonder that his departure and Will Muschamp’s arrival contributed to the mess.


Texas A&M’s 2003 class was unlucky #13 on Rivals’ list, but since A&M was playing in the Big 12 at the time, it’s hard to rank that as an SEC class… even if the Aggies are now part of the family.

What’s not surprising is that Tennessee has taken an overall nosedive as a program with two classes impacted by defections and coaching-change-driven attrition.  Toss in a 2005 class that was initially ranked #1 by some services yet failed to produce any all-time greats and it’s clear why things went south on Rocky Top. 

While Derek Dooley hasn’t won enough games to satisfy Vol fans in his first two years — and he’s squarely on the hot seat entering Year Three — the man has quietly re-stocked UT’s cupboard.  He’s inked three Top 20 signing classes despite the mess left by Kiffin and an NCAA investigation that hung over the program for two years.  Question is: If Dooley’s ousted at season’s end, will attrition take its toll on the Tennessee program once again?

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Spurrier Goes To Slive Over Perceived ESPN-Bama Love Affair

Steve Spurrier is jealous.  Jealous of the way he believes ESPN has been fawning all over Alabama’s Crimson Tide.

Appearing on Dan Patrick’s radio show, South Carolina’s coach said that he went to SEC commissioner Mike Slive to complain about ESPN’s kind treatment of Bama.

Last year, ESPN did an all-access program behind the scenes of Nick Saban’s football program.  Think that kind of thing doesn’t help with recruiting?  The network also ran an ad last December that featured Alabama fans saying “Roll Tide” repeatedly.





To be fair, ESPN has run a number of ads involving “crazy” fans of various schools and teams.  And the network is producing an all-access series at Oklahoma this year.

But that didn’t stop the Ol’ Ball Coach from turning to Slive:



“I said, ‘How much did Alabama pay those guys to do that?’  He said, ‘Oh, they didn’t have to pay them anything.’  I said, ‘Well, what happened to Go Gators or Rocky Top or Go Gamecocks?’  I didn’t think that was all that fair.”


Is it fair?  Probably not.  But networks can’t be expected to provide 100% equal coverage of all 120 FBS schools.  That’s just not going to happen.

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Spurrier Sounds Off On Academics, Ohio State, Tennessee And More

Last summer at SEC Media Days, Steve Spurrier looked like a shell of his former self.  Gone was the bravado, the rapier wit and sharp tongue.  Instead, an aging coach stood before the media.  Just another aging coach.

Fast-forward through a 9-win, East Division-title-winning season and the Ol’ Ball Coach is back.  Not only was the he #1 hit at last week’s Media Days, but Spurrier’s still talking smack.  And unlike Lane Kiffin — who he spoke of as part of his engagement in Chattanooga on Saturday — Spurrier’s digs are usually pretty funny.

Last week, Carolina’s coach said that coaches who win have more reason to talk.  And while the coach says he still hasn’t won very much in Columbia, he’s clearly won enough to get his tongue wagging again.  Try on these quotes (reported by Mark Wiedmer of The Chattanooga Times Free Press):

On Mike Slive’s proposal to raise academic standards for players — “Some of these guys are not academically capable of raising standards.”  (That’s not exactly brochure material for the University of South Carolina, now is it?)

On the need to get athletes more money — “Marcus Lattimore doesn’t have a car.  He’s probably had a $15-20 million impact on our school.  But he can’t get a car unless a bank qualifies him for a loan.  I told him the other day, ‘Go get a loan.  I think you’re a good risk.”

On Ohio State’s recent rumored issues with a car dealer — “Ohio State has a better car arrangement than we do.”

On former Tennessee coach — and foil — Phillip Fulmer — “They ought to put Coach Fulmer on an NCAA committee (to change college football).  He’s a common sense guy and they need some of that.  We’re really pretty good friends these days.”

On his multiple wins in Knoxville (with Duke, Florida and Carolina) — “If you beat Tennessee in Knoxville, you’ve got to learn how to sing ‘Rocky Top.’  We were fortunate enough to beat them a few times up there.”

On former UT coach Lane Kiffin – “I didn’t think much of him, did you?”

And on Kiffin’s suggestion to then-recruit Alshon Jeffery that he’ll wind up pumping gas if he signs with Carolina (a statement Kiffin denies making) — “Yeah, Alshon was laughing about that when we were getting ready to fly to Birmingham for SEC Media Days.”

It’s been a long while since Spurrier felt confident enough to start throwing jabs.  And that should tell SEC watchers just how good he feels about his 2011 squad.

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Vols Won’t Win The Press Conference With Martin, But…

Tennessee’s hiring of Missouri State’s Cuonzo Martin hasn’t done much to cool fan anger over the dismissmal of Bruce Pearl.  The early results are in in the form of a non-scientific poll at The Knoxville News Sentinel’s website:


Happy with the hire: 25%
Not happy with the hire: 36%
Reserving judgement: 37%


When just 25% of the fans voting approve of the hire, that’s not a real good sign.  One prominent UT booster — blogger Clay Travis — tweeted this: 


Odds Bruce Pearl returns to NCAA Tourney before Cuonzo Martin goes for the first time?  Nearly 100%.


Funny.  If Pearl doesn’t get a lengthy ban from the NCAA for destroying the UT program — a nugget that surprisingly few Tennessee fans accept.

Even Pearl’s son Steven — who played for the Vols this year — had a rough tweet regarding Martin:


All I can do is laugh and say good luck sir


Of course, Steven has seen his dad’s fall from grace up close and at least has the excuse of a wounded heart to blame for his lack of decorum.

So we at MrSEC.com are going to jump in with both feet on this one too, right?  I mean, we questioned Tennessee’s hire of Lane Kiffin and ripped the hire of Derek Dooley.  We must really be prepared to toss some darts after this one, right?  Right?

Wrong.  Hey, if nothing else, Martin is the first coach in three tries (including Kiffin, Dooley and himself) to actually have a winning record as the time of his employment at Tennessee.  That’s a start.

But here’s why this hire isn’t as bad — in our view — as many folks seem to think:


1.  Martin showed class in returning to Springfield to meet with his team face-to-face about his departure.  That’s becoming a rarity these days and it shows character.  Considering Tennessee’s current mess, there’s nothing wrong with the Vols hiring someone with a little character.  Richmond’s Chris Mooney would have been a perfect fit for UT had “major” NCAA violations from 2007 not come to light.  Staring down the barrel of the NCAA’s elephant gun itself, Tennessee couldn’t afford to take any chances.  Martin has a clean resume.

2.  Martin is a B-level, mid-major candidate which is about all the UT administration could hope to land in the Pearl aftermath.  NCAA sanctions.  NCAA probation.  A questionable roster.  High expectations in spite of those last three points.  Now toss in a lame-duck AD.  Why would a “name” coach volunteer to take the Volunteer job at this point in time?  They wouldn’t.  And UT floated trial balloons at the Jamie Dixons and Sean Millers of the world.  It’s not Martin’s fault that he was in the “and the rest” category of UT’s candidate list.

3.  Martin won the Missouri Valley regular season title last year — a first for the school — and he was named the league’s Coach of the Year.  His resume is short — three years in Springfield — but so is Shaka Smart’s at VCU.  Smart’s had a helluva run after miraculously getting into the NCAAs, but pre-tourney, the names Smart and Martin would have been squarely side-by-side on any list of young, mid-major coaches.

4.  His Missouri State players had only good things to say about their outgoing coach.  Again, that’s not always the case when a coach splits.

5.  The Gene Keady coaching tree has sprouted many successful branches: Bruce Weber, Kevin Stallings, Steve Lavin, Matt Painter, etc.  And Keady has glowing praise for his former protege.


Also, when you’re hoping to keep two current players from turning pro, it doesn’t hurt to hire a fiery, late-30s, African-American, former NBA player as your top guy.  Here’s guessing Belmont’s 58-year-old Rick Byrd would have had a tougher time keeping Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris in Knoxville.  No offense, but 30 years at Belmont doesn’t give a man much street cred among 19- and 20-year-olds.

So, from the MrSEC.com standpoint, no, Martin is not Mike Anderson, the man Arkansas snared for the only other opening in the league this year.  But Tennessee couldn’t grab an Anderson-esque candidate in its current situation… and among the fallback, B-level candidates, Martin seems to have as many pluses as anyone.

And it bears repeating — at least this guy’s got a winning record as he moves to the foothills of the Smokies.

Does that mean he’ll win 70% of his games on Rocky Top like his predecessor?  Likely not.  But the Vols weren’t in a position to hire anyone else who could “guarantee” that kind of success.


Some links:

This writer bashes the hire and says AD Mike Hamilton will likely be gone soon.

Martin survived a scary bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

This writer says Tennessee made a prudent choice in Martin.

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Celtics’ Frank Consulting In UT’s Search

Boston Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank has indeed been contacted by the University of Tennessee.  But, “don’t expect him to be singing ‘Rocky Top’ anytime soon.”

Celtics beatwriter A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast Sports New England says a league source has confirmed that Frank was contacted… but it was to discuss potential candidates the school should target.

Boston GM Danny Ainge said that UT has yet to ask permission of the Celtics to speak with Frank about actually coaching Tennessee.

“He’s a good coach, but Lawrence is committed 100% to our quest to win a championship this year,” Ainge said.  “He’s a quality coach who should be a candidate for a number of coaching opportunities in the future.”

Ainge is the uncle of former Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge.

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