Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart believes the criticism former men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin encountered this season won't hinder the Volunteers' search for a successor.
Martin led Tennessee to an NCAA regional semifinal during a season in which disgruntled fans circulated a petition calling for the return of former coach Bruce Pearl, now at Auburn. Martin left Tuesday to take over California's program. Hart acknowledged Martin faced plenty of “distractions” this season.
“I think this is an extremely attractive job,” Hart said. “We have history. We have tradition. We have one of the finest venues in the country to play college basketball. No, I'm not concerned about that.”
Martin downplayed the impact the petition had on his departure and said it “just woke up a sleeping bear.” He didn't know how it might impact Tennessee's coaching search.
“I'm not sure about that,” Martin said. “I want those players to be successful because those are good guys and they've done a tremendous job in the classroom.”
Martin went 63-41 in three years at Tennessee, including a 24-13 mark this season before the Vols lost to Michigan in the Midwest regional semifinal.
Hart isn't alone in thinking the adversity Martin encountered won't limit Tennessee's ability to find a quality replacement. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called Tennessee a top-30 job and said “that's probably being conservative.’
“It's got good facilities, good support,” Bilas said. “It's in a great league, and they've won there. It's got all positives. It's certainly not a positive the way that Cuonzo was treated last season by a portion of the fan base, but it's not something that would cause a good candidate to say no. That's not enough.”
CBS Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb noted that Martin's successor also will have the advantage of arriving at a time when the Southeastern Conference isn't particularly deep. The SEC has produced only three NCAA tournament teams each of the last two years.
“I think this gives Tennessee a chance for a fresh start,” Gottlieb said. “Obviously, it gives Cuonzo a chance for a fresh start. And it gives whoever gets the opportunity to coach in Knoxville a chance to take over an arena that was redone not long ago, a program that was just in the Sweet Sixteen and an administration that will likely do whatever it takes to make whoever is new feel welcome.”
Hart said he'd look for the same qualities he sought during his 2012 football coaching search that resulted in the hiring of Butch Jones from Cincinnati. Hart emphasized finding a proven winner with a “significant track record,” but didn't rule out the possibility of selecting a “rising star.”
Tennessee traditionally hires an up-and-coming coach from the mid-major ranks. Martin came from Missouri State. Pearl arrived at Tennessee after leading Wisconsin-Milwaukee to a regional semifinal. Pearl succeeded Buzz Peterson, who came to Tennessee after guiding Tulsa to a NIT championship.
“You look for somebody that can recruit,” Hart said. “Our lifeblood is recruiting in all of our sports. When you go into a process like this, you want to be sure that the person you're hiring is an outstanding recruiter.
“You also want a person that brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Transitions aren't easy, regardless of the circumstances that may have brought you into a transition. They're difficult. You want somebody with knowledge of the game and you want somebody that can attract a very high-quality staff.”
The timing of Martin's departure leaves Hart with a late start, but this isn't the first time he's faced such circumstances. While he was Florida State's athletic director in 1997, DePaul hired away Pat Kennedy in mid-June, forcing a summer search that led to the selection of Tulsa's Steve Robinson.
“It makes it harder,” Hart said. “It makes it tougher, but the timing is what it is and you deal with it and you move forward.”