KNOXVILLE (MCT) – The day after the Tennessee men's basketball team was bounced from the NCAA tournament, Vols coach Cuonzo Martin and his assistants assured members of their 2014 signing class they are not leaving Knoxville.
"He called and said, 'It's rumors.' I'm going to play for Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee," one of Martin's four 2014 signees, who requested anonymity, told the News Sentinel on Saturday.
An ESPN report earlier in the day added the third-year Tennessee coach's name to the list of those Marquette has targeted for its vacant position.
Attempts to reach Martin on Saturday were unsuccessful. UT senior associate athletic director Jon Gilbert declined to discuss the matter in detail.
"We would not speculate on an opening at another school," he told the News Sentinel by phone.
Gilbert said Martin and UT athletic director Dave Hart plan to meet "in due time" to review the Vols' season, which ended with a 73-71 loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in Indianapolis on Friday.
The Marquette job came open when Buzz Williams left for Virginia Tech last week. Since VCU coach Shaka Smart reportedly turned Marquette down, other names linked to the job include former UCLA coach Ben Howland, Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins and Green Bay coach Brian Wardle. Marquette is conducting its search while adjusting to a newly hired school president, Michael Lovell, and an interim athletic director, Bill Cords.
Martin, who is 63-41 at UT and has the third-best winning percentage out of the SEC's active coaches, is approaching his fourth year of a five-year contract that pays $1.35 million annually. He received a $50,000 raise after last season, but was not offered an extension. He is believed to be the 11th-highest paid coach in his 14-team league.
The lack of an extension last season raised questions about Martin's job security. Hart said publicly the program's goal was to return to the NCAA tournament; Martin's two previous UT teams had gone to NITs. Outside pressure this season, including a popular online petition that called for the rehiring of previously fired UT coach Bruce Pearl, mounted when the Vols fell to 16-11 and 7-7 in the SEC after its second loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 22.
But the Vols responded by winning eight of their next 10 games, the only losses coming to No. 1 Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals and No. 2 seed Michigan on Friday.
On March 25, before the Vols left for the program's seventh Sweet 16 game, Martin spoke at length about the public criticism he and his team weathered before the late surge.
"My mom taught me this early in life and I didn't understand it at the time, she just said if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," he said.
"That's why I'm quiet a lot of the time. It's a sport and it's a business at the end of the day. We talk about guys going to school and getting degrees and all that, and for me, that's very important. But, it seems for some that the bottom line is winning ballgames and there's nothing wrong with that. I think as a coach you have to keep a perspective, what's your goal, what's your plan for all your guys. Not every one of our guys are going to be pros, but they can be successful in their careers.
That's my job to help them with that. I don't get consumed with what goes on because it's time and energy wasted. If you can't control it, why worry about it? At the end of the day, I don't care how successful you are. Some people won't like you for whatever reason, so why waste time on it? One thing I've always lived by, unless they change, there will only be one body in that casket when I'm gone. That's the most important thing."
UT assistant coach Jon Harris played at Marquette from 1998-2002. Martin spent one season (1996-97) with the Milwaukee Bucks during his professional basketball career. Martin and his wife have family in that area.
But those ties, according to one Martin signee, matter not. He said Martin and his assistants have been in communication with all incoming players. Their message: We look forward to coaching you. Ignore the rumors about Martin to Marquette.