The Ray Mears Room is multi-functional. Only 15 days ago, Tennessee basketball celebrated its sixth consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
But on Monday, the occasion had taken a 180.
Already, a larger-than-life photo of the new coach had replaced Bruce Pearl next to Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt on a wall mural. By the miracle of computer graphics, he was even wearing an orange tie.
Soon, the flesh-and-blood Cuonzo Martin walked into the room, wearing a genuine orange-striped tie.
Martin is a big man, a good thing since he has big shoes to fill.
In another lifetime, Pearl once recruited Martin, hoping to persuade the high school star to play at Iowa. It didn’t take.
Now, the school that fired Pearl has successfully recruited Martin to take over and do the right things both on and off the court.
That last part is especially important in light of the circumstances that led to Pearl’s ouster.
UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who had a voice in the call to cut ties with the popular Pearl, made that crystal clear.
When Cheek met with candidate Martin on Sunday, he listed four criteria: play by the rules; be competitive on the court; represent the university with integrity; stress academics.
“If we can do those things, we can be very successful at Tennessee,’’ Cheek said Monday, “but the first thing is you’ve got to play by the rules.
“And (Martin) said, ‘That’s what I do.’ He convinced me without a shadow of a doubt that he is that kind of coach.’’
Martin said it himself Monday:
“Right is right. Wrong is wrong.’’
He also said he didn’t dwell greatly on the looming NCAA sanctions as he pondered leaving Missouri State.
His pondering included not only if but where. Tennessee wasn’t the only school expressing interest.
Knowing that, UT athletic director Mike Hamilton had a heightened sense of urgency.
“You don’t want to run the risk of finding the person, then him taking the job somewhere else because you didn’t act swiftly enough,’’ Hamilton said.
“There were a couple of other jobs open. We knew he was possibly involved in at least two of those, so we decided to move ahead.’’
One job that could come open soon is Purdue, Martin’s alma mater. Purdue coach Matt Painter is Missouri’s leading target.
Martin acknowledged the what-if scenario crossed his mind.
“But I felt like this is the best situation for me,’’ he said.
“I went to Purdue University. I love Purdue, but I’m a Tennessee Vol.’’
A Tennessee Vol with a hefty buyout in the memorandum of understanding he signed.
The process that led to the signed memorandum and the computer-enhanced orange tie included a new player, Cheek, the chancellor who was handed oversight of athletics last July in a university system reorganization.
He said his role in a coach search was no different than in a dean search. Ultimately, he emphasized, this was Hamilton’s hire.
When Hamilton goes looking for a coach, he doesn’t mess around. If this search seemed quick — less than a week from Pearl’s firing — it wasn’t as quick as the one 14 months ago that chose Derek Dooley to replace another alleged NCAA rule-bender, Lane Kiffin.
So, like Dooley, Martin is charged with running an especially clean ship.
“That’s a given,’’ Cheek said. “That’s not negotiable.’’
Yes, but another given is that you have to beat Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt on something approaching a regular basis.
Let’s not lose sight of that. In about 50 weeks, UT would like the Ray Mears Room to host another NCAA bracket party.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange