Sept. 23, 2011 passed by with little fanfare.
News Sentinel headlines were that of any another day. Tennessee football was heading into its bye week. Disputes over federal spending stirred fears of a government shutdown on Capitol Hill. Recovery efforts were underway in India, Tibet and Nepal following a string of earthquakes.
For Cuonzo Martin, the date marked the 180th day since he signed a memorandum of understanding to become Tennessee's men's basketball coach. The anniversary would be trivial, if not for an easily overlooked detail in the MOU.
"While these terms are contingent upon our executing an employment contract, we expect a formal employment agreement to be fully executed within 180 days."
Martin did not a have a formal contract in place on Sept. 23, 2011.
Nor does he have one in place on June 20, 2012.
Martin thinks, or at least hopes, that it could change this week.
"There just hasn't been a lot of time to sit down and talk about things," Martin said in his office last Friday morning. "I've been coming and going and (UT athletic director) Dave Hart has been coming and going. So now we're going to, hopefully, get something wrapped up here in the next week."
According to Martin, the primary hangup in finalizing a contract was UT's administrative switch from former AD Mike Hamilton to Hart, who was introduced in September. Hamilton hired Martin in March 2011 and subsequently resigned two months later.
Martin said last Friday that the timing of the "transition in administration," just a few months prior to the 2011-12 season, ultimately derailed chances of a deal being completed.
No thunderclap vibrated from September's passed-by soft deadline and, still today, the lack of a contract doesn't signal contention. Martin's MOU is a "binding agreement," per the wording in its opening paragraph, and "presents the material terms of (UT's) offer" for a five-year term with an option for a two-year extension.
The deal pays Martin a stout $1.3 million per year and includes incentives such as $25,000 for an NIT appearance, $50,000 for an NCAA appearance and $100,000 for an SEC regular-season title.
Nonetheless, the MOU is essentially an agreement to agree to a contract, not an actual contract.
"It doesn't cross my mind too much," Martin said. "It's just a matter of a few particulars and getting squared away to move forward."
Repeated requests for a comment from Hart on current contract negotiations went unanswered. Likewise, Martin's agent, Buddy Baker, did not respond to multiple calls from the News Sentinel.
Baker, a former classmate of Martin's at Purdue, negotiated the coach's contracts for his original head coaching job at Missouri State and the initial MOU at UT.
"It's just a matter of getting to it," said Martin, when asked if there are any sticking points in negotiations between he and Tennessee. "Obviously there are always points because you're dealing with a contract, but for the most part it's just a matter of getting to things and getting to the bottom line."
Martin left Missouri State for Tennessee following the 2010-11 season. He was one year into a five-year contract paying a base of $140,000 per season (total package worth $300,000 per year) before the Vols came calling.
According to Martin's MOU, UT paid $200,000 toward his contract buyout at Missouri State.
Entering his first season in Knoxville, Martin and a depleted roster of Vols were picked to finish 11th in the SEC. Instead, Tennessee finished in a second-place tie with Florida and Vanderbilt and posted a 19-15 season that ended in the second round of the NIT.
Martin's predecessor, Bruce Pearl, earned $1.9 million in his final season at UT.
"I think this is something that we can get wrapped up," Martin said. "This is something I want to move past so we can focus on the season."
According to David Williams II, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics and a tenured professor in sports law, MOUs are essentially the scaffolding of a contract.
Williams calls the basic terms of an MOU "the essence of the deal." The major basic points are there: how much money, how many years, etc. In all, an MOU is no more than two to four pages.
The purpose of an MOU, according to Williams, is to lock in the employee and the employer to an agreement, allowing lawyers to take time carving out the legalese in the final 16- or 17-page contract.
The crux of an MOU is its simplicity. Simplicity can lead to ambiguity.
"You gain a little more power if after that first year (under an MOU) we have to sign a contract and you've done very well," Williams said. "Then you'd try to negotiate other things. It's really a matter of what's in there and what's not in there."
Bargaining power can be a two-way street, though.
Three years ago a prolonged MOU between a coach and university directly led to one of the uglier coach-university divorces in recent memory.
Ex-Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie lingered along with a MOU while going 40-27 through the first two years of a proposed seven-year contract with the Wildcats.
Then Gillespie was fired. Without cause, in his opinion, and without a formal signed contract.
Seven months of bickering, mediation and lawyer fees followed. Gillespie sued for breach of contract and fraud to the tune of at least $6 million — payment for four of the final five years of the contract — and the university countersued.
At the core of those suits? Kentucky considered Gillespie's MOU a year-to-year contract. Gillespie considered it a binding longterm agreement. He said during the lawsuit that UK never had intentions of honoring it.
Kentucky settled for a $2.98 million dollar settlement.
Considering Martin's early successes as Tennessee head coach, there are no questions surrounding his job security.
That doesn't mean, though, that job security isn't something he wants.
"I plan on being here for a long time and I don't think it's a case of who has the leverage or whatever," Martin said. "It's just a matter of us getting this thing squared away."