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Cal names Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin as new basketball coach

By Jeff Faraudo Contra Costa Times (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:20 PM

BERKELEY -- Cal needed a new basketball coach and 36,000 of Tennessee's most overzealous fans helped push Cuonzo Martin to the Golden Bears' doorstep.

Cal introduced Martin as its new coach Tuesday, following a 15-day search to find a successor for Mike Montgomery.

Martin, 42, who will get a five-year contract from athletic director Sandy Barbour, said he virtually swooned when he got off the plane in the Bay Area Tuesday morning. "This place has a chance to be special," he said.

At Knoxville, Tenn., Martin guided the Volunteers to a spot in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 this season only weeks after fans signed an online petition demanding he be replaced by his predecessor, Bruce Pearl, who was fired in 2011 for lying to NCAA investigators.

Martin took the high road at his introductory news conference, declining to take any shots at UT fans.

"They woke up a hungry bear," Martin said of his response to the petition, which he claims he wasn't aware of until an opposing coach alluded to it after a game.

"It wasn't a big deal. You still have 17,000 people at the games. You can't please everybody."

He certainly pleased the Cal heirarchy, which identified him early in the search process but didn't close the deal until Tuesday morning. Martin arrives at Berkeley after a three-year run at Tennessee that produced a 63-41 record and with a six-year head coaching mark of 124-82.

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks called Martin "exactly the right person, exactly the right fit for us." Barbour called him "a winner in every way."

Hall of Famer Gene Keady, who coached Martin at Purdue and gave him his first coaching job, called him "the best leader I've ever been associated with in 55 years of coaching."

They were calling Martin other names at Tennessee this season.

The petition seeking his ouster surfaced after a Feb. 22 overtime loss at Texas A&M that dropped the Volunteers to 16-11 and on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight season. The Vols responded by winning five straight games and eight of nine before losing to Michigan 73-71 in the NCAA regional semifinals.

Martin called the petition incident "a teaching moment," suggesting that his players saw the way he carried himself through the ordeal and maintained their focus on the season. "Those young men became men in the process," he said.

Martin said he will work to engage the community and the student body because he wants Haas Pavilion full on game nights.

"You want fans with passion," he said. "You also want them to understand what you're trying to do as a program, the level you work at, how hard your guys play."

UT players had Martin's back on Tuesday.

Senior guard Jordan McRae tweeted: "Can't treat people any kind of way and expect good in return." Senior forward Jeronne Maymon tweeted: "Not even surprised. It was just a matter of time! #RESPECT"

Martin's decision was surprising news at UT, with athletic director Dave Hart admitting he didn't even know his coach was talking to Cal. After the Sweet 16 run, Hart had proposed giving Martin a new contract with an annual salary boost from $1.35 million to $1.8 million and a two-year extension throgh 2017-18.

"I don't think Cuonzo's decision was driven by dollars or was driven by necessarily number of years," Hart said Tuesday.

Martin said he expected to assemble his coaching staff within a few days and said he would talk with Cal's assistants, including associate head coach Travis DeCuire, but planned to bring aides from UT.

Cal freshman guard Jabari Bird said he and his teammates were impressed by their first exchange with Martin.

"A lot of guys have given great feedback on his personality as a coach, saying he's going to be fun to play for," Bird said. "I don't think anybody's making plans on leaving."

The coach of fall signee Idrissa Diallo said the 6-foot-10 center from Los Angeles will re-open his recruitment, but may still pick Cal. There was no immediate word from four-star point guard Ahmaad Rorie of Tacoma, Wash.

But Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-footer from England who played this season at Westwind Academy in Phoenix, tweeted that he has flipped his commitment to Cal one day after choosing Tennessee.

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