UT goes gonzo for Cuonzo — and prepares to test the adage that middling players make great coaches 

Mike Hamilton had to do something.

Over the course of a few days, the University of Tennessee athletic director saw archrival Kentucky make a run to the Final Four, led by perpetual thorn-in-the-Orange-side John Calipari.

To make things worse, the other half of the bracket ended up with semifinalists in eighth-seed Butler and last-team-in-the-tournament Virginia Commonwealth.

Most of America saw the Bulldogs and Rams as a pair of only-in-March feel-good stories. Hamilton saw two coaches — Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart — that he'd have to wait for, if they were going to move at all.

Hamilton, having fired the wildly popular and suddenly troubled Bruce Pearl, needed a basketball coach and needed one quick. Stevens and Smart — young coaches at small schools both — were clearly among the favorites for the job, but Hamilton needed to do something to quell the firestorm erupting in Knoxville. The Bulldogs and Rams did him no favors by playing into April.

So Hamilton went gonzo for Cuonzo.

Connoisseurs of college basketball remember Cuonzo Martin as a smooth-as-silk shooter on those 1990s Purdue teams with Glenn Robinson and Matt Painter — those Boilermaker teams who clearly had enough prowess to win it all, but whose major talent seemed to be ruining everybody's bracket by no-showing to Southwest North Dakota School of Mines in the second round.

After Purdue, Martin bounced around the NBA for a while. He was a career 60 percent three-point shooter in the association — on its face an impressive stat, except that he had nine career points and that 60 percent translates to 3-for-5 behind the arc.

Martin found his calling on the bench, though, coaching Missouri State to some level of success (though not the NCAA tournament). Not unusual for the third-best guy on the team. Baseball has an old adage that middling players make the best managers. Cuonzo Martin is to college basketball what Bud Black is to baseball. Except Black, now the manager of the Padres, won a ring when he was the fifth-best pitcher on the 1985 Kansas City Royals.

Examples abound. Phil Jackson — one of the best NBA coaches in history — was a fan favorite when he played for the Knicks. New York fans, apparently, go crazy for guys who average 6.7 points per game and lead the league in personal fouls.

The converse works too. Wayne Gretzky as a player was The Great One. As a coach, he was Eh, The OK One.

Despite Martin's underwhelming run at Missouri State, he was something of a hot commodity. With Missouri and Georgia Tech among the other big-name schools in search of a coach, Hamilton, now more despised in Knoxville than Lane Kiffin, struck. But really? What did the UT faithful expect? Who would want to follow Pearl, the gregarious circus promoter who brought men's basketball on The Hill out of the wilderness? It's like being Ray Perkins following Bear Bryant, except Bryant was classy enough to die before his successor coached a game. And who would want to come into a program facing an unknown level of NCAA sanctions?

Clearly the answer is Cuonzo Martin.

The Vol faithful ought to give Martin a chance — if for no other reason than it's looking like the potential coaching pool was pretty shallow. Belmont Coach Rick Byrd reportedly was interested and reportedly interviewed. Reportedly, Hamilton either didn't want to hire the staid, steady and 57-year-old antithesis of Pearl, or Byrd didn't see much sense in diving headfirst into the morass that is the future of Vols basketball.

Martin has some experience beating overwhelming odds. He beat cancer, so a suspicious fan base, the NCAA muckety-mucks, and players jumping ship probably aren't going to faze him.

Yeah, sure, Martin was probably the third or fourth option for UT.

But that's a position he's used to.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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