Reports are in that the University of Tennessee has hired Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin to replace Bruce Pearl. Martin had been the head coach of the Missouri State Bears for 3 years. He played for Gene Keady at Purdue in the early to mid 1990s and had a very brief NBA career in Milwaukee and Vancouver. After that he played in the CBA and overseas until the year 2000.
In 2000 broke into coaching, joining Gene Keady’s staff at Purdue as an assistant. In 2005 Matt Painter was hired as Purdue head coach and retained Martin as an associate head coach where he stayed until 2008. In March 2008 Missouri State came calling. His first Bears team was injury plagued and struggled to an 11-20 record on the season. He showed marked improvement the following season by posting a 24-12 record, winning the CIT title. This past season the Bears had 25 regular season wins and an RPI rating of #44 and won the MVC regular season championship with a 15-3 mark. Many thought they should have made the NCAA tournament but instead landed in the NIT, winning their first round game before bowing out on the road at Miami in their second game. They finished the season with a 26-9 record.
On the personal front Martin doesn’t have the flashy personality of Bruce Pearl. But he has the heart of a lion. As a child he grew up in a very tough neighborhood in St Louis know as “the Hole”. Gangs, drugs, violence and murder surrounded him as a child. He overcame all that to become a successful student and basketball player. But things got even tougher for Martin as an adult.
At age 26 he was playing professional basketball in Italy. He started losing weight a a rapid pace and having trouble breathing. Italian doctors informed him that he had bronchitis and need to return home. He returned to the United States and was checked by a doctor. He got the worst news possible. He had cancer, and a particularly dangerous form of cancer at that. Non-Hodgkins’s Lymphoma, with the tumor mass growing between his heart and his lungs.
He began an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy which left him near death and barely able to move. His one prayer, his reason for fighting was to see his then 4 month old son Joshua live to be 18. Martin beat his cancer but watched many who became his friends during treatment fall to the disease. To this day he works with several organizations to raise money for a cure to that dreaded disease. His son is 13 now and Martin has had a clean bill of health for the past decade.
Martin has several things going in his favor as a head coach for the Volunteers. He is known as a great recruiter. He actually played professional basketball and that means a great deal to many recruits. He landed several of Purdue’s best players during his tenure there.
He comes from the highly successful coaching tree of Gene Keady. Other coaches from there have had great success. Matt Painter has Purdue in the top 20 every year. Steve Lavin won the NCAA title at UCLA and resurrected St John’s this season. Bruce Weber has Illinois in NCAA form every season. Kevin Stallings turned Vanderbilt from an also ran to a yearly NCAA tournament team.
He is a young coach, only turning 40 this year. So hopefully the Vols have him for a long time. Gene Keady had this to say about him. “In my 50 years as head coach he is the best leader I ever had.” That’s a big statement from a Hall of Fame head coach with all the players Keady has saw in his long career.
Martin was also selected in January for the coaching staff of the USA World University Games Men’s team by Syracuse legend Jim Boeheim. He is on the staff with Matt Painter and Brad Stevens from Butler. Boeheim had this to say about Martin “Brad Stevens and Cuonzo Martin are two of the best young coaches in NCAA basketball. The players in the USA basketball program will certainly benefit from their coaching.“ So he is highly regarded by many of his fellow coaches.
Another indication of Martin’s coaching prospects, there is great panic in Boilermaker country tonight. Many rumors have been floated that they may lose Matt Painter to Missouri this year. They were counting on hiring Martin and bringing him back to Purdue. Now they are fit to be tied that Tennessee has hired him, leaving them with no plan for the future.
As is the case in pretty much anything coaching related, time will tell how this hire is viewed. Some important things are currently afoot. Martin will need to win over the current players to hopefully keep transfers at nil. Martin will need to speak with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris to try and convince them to give it one more year before they are NBA bound. And he will need to re-recruit current signees Kevin Ware and Chris Jones, who have said they were waiting on the new hire to see if they would honor their letter of intent.
All in all I do feel better about the hire than I did when it was first announced. Martin has huge shoes to fill by following Bruce Pearl. The NCAA penalties are a big unknown. But like with his upbringing in rough and tumble East St Louis, to his successful battle with cancer, expect UT and its fans to get the best fight Cuonzo Martin can bring to the table.