BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — A more relaxed fan base, milder weather and a chance to coach at the top-rated public university in the country added up to Cuonzo Martin making the decision to leave Tennessee for California.
Cal hired Martin as the 16th men’s basketball coach in school history Tuesday, a decision that stunned Volunteers administrators and players after he had reaffirmed his commitment to Tennessee just two weeks ago. Martin said it was a difficult move but the opportunity at Cal was too much to pass up.
“It’s a beautiful place. I got off the plane and I just said, `Ahhh,”‘ Martin said during his introductory news conference in Berkeley. “I think it has a chance to be special here. I think that’s the most intriguing thing to me. It’s a place I could spend the rest of my life.”
Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour said Martin’s contract, which is still being finalized, is for five years. Financial details will be released at a later date.
Martin also said he will bring “quite a few” of his assistant coaches from Tennessee to Cal once his contract is complete.
Martin replaces Mike Montgomery, who retired last month after six seasons in Berkeley. Martin went 63-41 in three seasons at Tennessee, including a 24-13 mark and an appearance in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament this season. He also was previously the coach at Missouri State.
Martin succeeds one of the most successful college coaches in the history of the San Francisco Bay Area. Montgomery finished his career with a 677-317 record, having also spent 18 years at Stanford and eight at Montana.
Replacing a revered coach is nothing new for Martin.
Martin, a 42-year-old native of East Saint Louis, Illinois, took over a Tennessee program under NCAA investigation in 2011 and has averaged 21 wins per year. But, at times, he struggled to escape the shadow of former coach Bruce Pearl, who led the Volunteers to NCAA tournament appearances in each of his six years on the job.
“For me, as a coach, your style is your style,” Martin said. “I don’t mind following guys. I like learning from guys.”
The decision left players, administrators and fans back in Knoxville stunned. Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said he didn’t know Martin was involved in the Cal job until they spoke Tuesday morning.
“We did have a conversation. He was very emotional,” Hart said. “The bottom line is he said in his heart he believed this was best for (him) and his family.”
Hart said he wishes Martin “nothing but success” at Cal and understands why he left after a “tough year.”
When Tennessee was struggling earlier this season, disgruntled fans started an online petition to bring back Pearl, who has since been hired by Auburn. Martin began to silence his critics when Tennessee revived its season by winning eight of nine games before falling 73-71 to Michigan in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
Martin also spoke with Marquette about its coaching vacancy a few weeks ago, but he pulled his name from consideration. Hart said soon afterward that the university was reworking Martin’s contract. Martin also released a statement through the university on April 1 reaffirming his position at Tennessee, saying “Tennessee is where I want to be. That has never changed.”
Two weeks later, it did.
Many of Martin’s former Tennessee players expressed support for the coach on Twitter. Some even referenced the fan backlash as a reason he left.
“Can’t treat people any kind of way and expect good in return,” wrote Vols guard Jordan McRae.
Martin, for his part, downplayed the petition. He said he didn’t pay attention to it at first, then tried to use it as motivation for his players during the season’s stretch run.
“They just woke up a hungry bear,” Martin said. “It wasn’t a big deal at all.”
Hart said he did not believe Martin left because of money. Martin was set to make $1.35 million the next two years, which ranked him in the bottom half of Southeastern Conference coaches, but Hart said Tennessee offered him a two-year extension worth $1.8 million in each of the next four years. Martin’s buyout option from Tennessee dropped from $2.6 million to $1.3 million on April 1.
Martin is not the only one changing his tune about Tennessee, either.
Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center originally from England who played this season for Westwind Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, announced on Twitter that he has switched his verbal commitment from Tennessee to California. Okoroh had verbally committed to Tennessee on Monday.
Martin previously served as coach at Missouri State, going 61-41 in three seasons, including win totals of 24 and 26 in his final two seasons. In 2010-11, Martin guided Missouri State to the regular-season Missouri Valley championship and was named the conference’s Coach of the Year.
As a player, Martin earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1995 at Purdue when he averaged 18.4 points per game and made 91 3-pointers. After playing two seasons in the NBA, he served on the staff at his alma mater from 2000-08 — first as an assistant coach under Gene Keady and in his final year as associate head coach.