- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Well this suddenly is interesting.
Until this week, the coaching carousel was a pretty mundane kiddie ride. Coaches most everyone expected to be handed pink slips did, in fact, get their walking papers, and no huge seismic shifts came with their replacements.
And then in the span of three days, the universities of Tennessee and Missouri were rejected like jilted bridegrooms by their coaches.
It's wildly similar and bizarrely dissimilar all at the same time -- two of the better gigs in the less than tradition-rich SEC suddenly open because their coaches left for less fertile pastures.
Cuonzo Martin, unappreciated by both his fan base and administration, left Tennessee for Cal, a good job but certainly not as good as the one in Knoxville. He had done well by most folk’s standards -- a winning record and Sweet 16 berth this year -- but was never able to escape his predecessor's shadow -- figuratively and literally. Bruce Pearl's NCAA tournament success loomed over Martin, who needed three years to return the Vols to the tourney, and his Knoxville address didn’t make things any easier.
He made no bones about his dissatisfaction, eyeing the gig at Marquette before leaving for Berkeley this week.
Frank Haith, meantime, was never viewed as an inspiring hire by Mizzou people. After Mike Anderson left for Arkansas, the general consensus on Haith, who had an OK but not hugely successful run at Miami, could be best summed up by a friend of mine who squeaked, "Frank Haith?" when the hiring was announced.
When the coach subsequently was implicated in the Miami NCAA scandal, it didn’t exactly help. Neither did an NCAA tournament upset as a 2-seed at the hands of 15-seed Norfolk State after a 30-win season two years ago.
The strange thing is, the Missouri administration expressed its faith in Haith amid the NCAA scrutiny, but after a disappointing NIT berth this year, most folks figured the coach was headed to a Show-Me year in the Show-Me State in 2014-15. He merely got ahead of the posse, it seems, by leaving for Tulsa.
Now, neither fan base is exactly crying in their coffee over the departure of either coach, with both groups convinced they can get a coaching upgrade.
Arms race, anyone?
Fair or not (and mostly not), these two hires will be compared to one another -- for initial impact, and more than likely, for long-term success. The schools and the programs are too similar, the timing too close for it to be otherwise.
In SEC hoops, there is Kentucky, there is Florida and there is everyone else jockeying for third.
There aren’t many teams that can lay claim to that bronze-medal position but count Tennessee and Missouri among the group that can. Both could open their wallets if they wanted to, with the backing of fervent and well-funded boosters; each has decent facilities and most of all, a history that is not covered entirely in dust.
The Volunteers went to six consecutive NCAA tournaments under Pearl and returned this year under Martin. The old coach had a 2010 Elite Eight berth to show for his efforts; the new coach, this year’s Sweet 16.
Missouri, meantime, had five consecutive NCAA tourney berths on its resume and a regional final run in 2009.
In other words, there’s plenty to work with for a new coach.
But who will those new coaches be? Already both sides are clamoring for the home run hires -- Shaka Smart or Gregg Marshall (the real winners here, by the way? Smart and Marshall's agents), but the reality is, right now winning the news conference has to be the least of these two school's concerns.
Whatever their individual reasons, Martin and Haith lasted only three short seasons. That’s not long enough, not in a top-heavy league such as the SEC, where gaining ground on the front-runners usually requires wading through quicksand.
Athletic directors Mike Alden at Missouri and Dave Hart at Tennessee each need to hire for stability more than headlines and find coaches that fit.
It's never an easy job, leading a coaching search, especially when everyone is watching.
And no doubt, comparing.