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Monday, March 28, 2011
New hires underwhelm UT, GT fans

By Eamonn Brennan

Cuonzo Martin & Brian Gregory
Georgia Tech's hire of Brian Gregory and Tennessee's hire of Cuonzo Martin underwhelmed some fans.
College fan bases probably reach their most delirious this time of year. It's that special time on the calendar when fans are either a) rooting on their team in the NCAA tournament, b) sitting around wondering why they're not rooting on their team in the NCAA tournament, or c) looking for a new coach that can steer them toward the former.

The coaching search begins, everyone takes to the message boards and comments sections to list their desired candidates, and before you know it, letdown strikes.

In the past 24 hours, fans at Tennessee and Georgia Tech have gone through this painful cycle. Not long ago, Tennessee fans -- many of them upset that Bruce Pearl was fired in the first place -- were pining for Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, Buzz Williams, etc. Not long ago, Georgia Tech fans were pining for Chris Mooney and the like.

It's no surprise, then, that plenty of members of both fan bases are disappointed with their respective hires. The common reaction, at least among provincial fans, to the hirings of Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee and Dayton coach Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech seem to be: Wait. Who did we hire?

You can forgive this impulse, even if it's not always correct. After all, both programs have fallen on their own version of hard times. Tennessee is facing an impending NCAA investigation that could saddle the men's basketball program with more than a few long-term issues. Among other financial travails, Georgia Tech is stuck paying former coach Paul Hewitt's massive $7 million buyout. Neither program was in a position to hire their ideal candidate this offseason. The notion that either program could compete for Stevens or Smart or any of this year's top-flight candidates was always silly, even if fans have a hard time realizing as much in the course of the day-to-day rumor mill.

Still, if you want to compare, you can argue that Tennessee did much better than Georgia Tech in its adversity-laden hire this week. Martin was an elite recruiter during his eight years at Purdue, and in the course of three seasons he transformed Missouri State from a team that won three games in the Missouri Valley to a team that won the Missouri Valley (and nearly made the NCAA tournament in the process). Martin is still somewhat unproven as a head coach, but he's willing to deal with the fallout from the Pearl era. He's no stranger to personal adversity (Martin survived cancer at the age of 26) and in five years, if Martin proves to be a quality hire, no one should be shocked.

Georgia Tech's hire of Gregory, on the other hand, is a little less inspired. Early this week, the school flatly denied reports that Gregory was its next coach only to call a surprise news conference to announce Gregory's hiring today.

The 44-year-old is by no means a bad coach -- in his six years at Dayton he took the team to two NCAA tournaments, and won the 2010 NIT title -- but Georgia Tech fans hopeful for a big-name acquisition to follow Hewitt's departure were no doubt left cold. Instead, Georgia Tech hired the best coach it could afford. When a coach's former fans say farewell with signs like this -- "Atlanta Weather: Sunny With A Chance Of NIT" -- it's fair to say that coach isn't going to excite many fans at a success-starved school like Georgia Tech.

So, yes, you can forgive Tennessee fans and Georgia Tech fans their relative disappointments. (For what it's worth, while plenty of Tennessee fans are unleashing their anger via the Internet, the intelligent folks at Rocky Top Talk are maintaining a more reasoned perspective.) But each school did the best it could given its current situation. That may be small solace to fans in Knoxville and Atlanta, but it is the cold, hard, realistic truth.