Cuonzo Martin, Welcome to Rocky Top

Late Sunday evening, the Tennessee Athletic department announced the hiring of Cuonzo Martin (pronounced CON-zoe) as the 18th basketball coach in school history. With a 61-41 record Martin has been a head coach for only three years. An introductory press conference will take place today at 2:30 p.m. at which time the University will likely release contract details and allow questions to Mike Hamilton and Martin.

“Cuonzo is among the most promising young coaches in the game, and we are excited about the coaching ability, toughness and energy that he brings to our program,” Hamilton’s statement said. “He has a proven track record of success as a head coach at Missouri State and an assistant at Purdue as well as an outstanding career as a college basketball player.”

Martin is coming from his first head coaching job, which has lasted the past three years at Missouri St. This season Martin won Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year and is a finalist for two national coaching awards in the Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year Award, which honors the top mid-major coach, and the Ben Jobe Award, which honors the top minority coach in Division I.

These nominations are coming following a 26-9, 15-3 record this season and winning the school’s first ever league title. The Bears advanced to the second round of the NIT this season. Martin did all this by improving his team from 11-20, 3-15 just two years prior. Before accepting the position at Missouri St. Martin was an assistant at Purdue for eight seasons and played professionally before that.

However thin his resume may be, that does not necessarily mean it is not impressive especially when adding the valuable experience he gained as an assistant.

Martin comes from the Gene Keady coaching tree. Keady, in 27 seasons as a headcoach, had a record of 550-289 at Purdue and Western Kentucky. During his tenure he went to the NCAA tournament 18 times, including 3 Sweet 16’s and 2 Elite 8’s, and the NIT 5 times, including a runner up finish in 81-82. In an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel on Sunday, Keady had nothing but positives to say about his protege.

“He’s a class guy that works hard,’’ said the 74-year-old Keady, a six-time National Coach of the Year and the second-winningest coach in Big Ten history. “He’s gone through all of the hard knocks of moving up in the coaching ranks. He has great integrity and will be very easy to work with.’’

“It was evident early in his playing career he would be a leader in some type of profession, He’s the best leader I ever had as a player.’’

Also coming from the Keady coaching tree are Illinois coach Bruce Weber (296-140 as a head coach), St Johns coach Steve Lavin (165-88), Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings (358-210) and Purdue coach Matt Painter (155-66).

Martin has the distinctive challenge of coming into a program following one of the most popular figures in UT basketball history in Bruce Pearl. Pearl was fired a week ago after repeated NCAA violations. The University will face charges on June 10th before the Committee on Infractions, which was thought to play a major role in the coaching search this past week.

Martin was born in East St. Louis, Ill. and he, ironically, has a tie to his predecessor. He originally planned to sign with Illinois but however he didn’t, because Illinois in 1990 was facing NCAA sanctions over the Deon Thomas case — initiated by Pearl’s controversial tactics as an Iowa assistant coach.

While Pearl is a one of a kind figure and coach, Martin should be able to carry on some of the key traits Bruce has brought to this program. Bruce always liked to play strong teams in the season because he believed in having a good RPI for getting into post-season play. Missouri State finished the season with the No. 43 RPI, which ranked among the highest in the nation of teams that didn’t receive an NCAA tournament at-large bid.

Martin also has had to overcome a near-fatal bout with cancer — non-Hodgkins lymphoma — in the late 1990s. He lost 40 pounds but said the will to watch his 4-month-old son grow up inspired his survival. One would assume that this experience would give him the desire to continue the oUTlive program that coach Pearl started three years ago.

Cancer was a major struggle for Martin, but his toughness has allowed him to carry on today. That toughness also has helped him battle through weak knees, he was told he would never play basketball at the collegiate level, however in 1994, his senior season, he averaged 18.4 points per game, shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range and better than 80 percent from the free-throw line.

Upon taking over at Missouri St. in 2008 the Bears only had 5 scholarship players in hand. Since that first year, the Bears have gone 50-21 including a CIT post season championship. All of this toughness is going to be paramount for Martin the next couple years here at UT.

Harris and Hopson are both testing draft waters, six seniors just graduated and the talent level returning is unproven at best. Two signees in Kevin Ware and Chris Jones are asking to be released but have agreed to meet the new coach before it is granted. Martin however will apply his life motto to this new experience and “never back down.”

Now some are wondering why him and why so soon? Well Vol fans the program is facing NCAA sanctions and the athletic director is on shaky ground at best. Why would any established coach want to leave a program that he is in good standing with (why would we hire someone who is about to get fired elsewhere?)? He wouldn’t and I don’t blame that person for that. So that leaves us with mid major coaches. Chris Mooney from Richmond, Gregg Marshall from Wichita St, Shaka Smart from VCU and Martin all emerged as possible candidates.

UT’s interested in Mooney cooled after NCAA violations committed in 2007 were revealed this week, Marshall has never gotten past the early interview stage in his previous two attempts with the UT coaching committee. So that leaves Smart, who finished 4th in the Colonial Athletic Conference this season and was for all intensive purposes the last team to enter the NCAA tournament. His team went 3-5 over the last 8 games in the regular season and several media outlets expressed outrage that they were allowed into the tournament over teams such as the SEC’s Alabama.

Now obviously Smart has led his team on a final four run these past two weeks but something can be said for success over the long run (Martin’s first place finish in the MVC) and success in the short run (a final four after a 4th place finish in a mid major conference for Smart).

Smart also made it clear through his agent he had little interest in the position due to the problems noted above. Martin may not have been the best hire but the more I read the more I like it. Until I see him coach a game for the orange and white, I’ll call this a good hire. Obviously I’m not the only one who likes him either. With Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange and chairman of the USA World University Game committee selecting Martin to be an assistant for the team this August along with Butler’s Brad Stevens. They will serve under Purdue coach Painter who is the head coach for this years team.

“Brad Stevens and Cuonzo Martin are two of the best young head coaches in NCAA basketball,” said Boeheim. “The players in the USA Basketball program will certainly benefit from their coaching.”

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About Steven Harris

Steven Harris is a fifth year senior at the University of Tennessee. Majoring in sports journalism, this blog provides an outlet for Harris to share his thoughts on the state of the University of Tennessee's athletic department''s Volunteer teams. View all posts by Steven Harris

4 responses to “Cuonzo Martin, Welcome to Rocky Top

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