Vols coach’s past puts basketball in perspective
Nothing has come easy for Cuonzo Martin. That’s why he is
undaunted by the challenges that lie ahead as the new Tennessee
men’s basketball coach.
Martin coach grew up in a rough neighborhood. He needed four
knee surgeries after a high school injury just so he could play
college basketball. He fought cancer while preparing to be a
”All of those things really helped me to understand there are
no such things as tough times,” Martin told The Associated Press.
”You have to be able to push forward.”
His ability to do that will be tested early on.
The Volunteers, after a 30-point loss in the NCAA tournament,
fired Bruce Pearl because of ongoing trouble with the NCAA. But the
path ahead still has obstacles; Tennessee is awaiting a June
meeting with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions and likely
sanctions in the fall.
Martin said he is ready for the challenge.
His first step will be building a relationship with the Vols’
nine scholarship players. Martin has met with them and is
encouraging freshman forward Tobias Harris and junior guard Scotty
Hopson to continue considering the NBA draft because ”it means
you’re trying to be the best possible.”
Martin plans to engage the players and get to know them when he
leads the Vols in a light practice and workouts in the coming days.
He’ll also talk with Tennessee signees Kevin Ware and Chris
”It’s not easy when you have a guy who recruited you and
coached you and he’s no longer a part of the program, so you’ve got
to understand the players’ reservation to move forward,” Martin
told the AP. ”So for me as a coach, it’s making them understand
it’s a family, we’ll continue to be a family and we’ll just push
Martin, 39, is intense without being imposing. He developed his
leadership style under longtime Purdue coach Gene Keady. Martin
played for Keady from 1991-1995, helping to lead the Boilermakers
to three straight Big Ten championships and earning a spot on the
All-Big Ten team his senior year.
Growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., prepared Martin for Keady’s
firm but fair coaching style. Keady, who says Martin is the right
man for Tennessee, has nothing but praise for his pupil.
”Probably the best leader I ever had,” Keady said. ”When he
got home from (playing professional basketball in) Europe, he was
diagnosed with lymphoma. I told him, you get that whipped and you
finish your degree, I’ll hire you as an assistant.”
Martin took him up on the offer and was a Keady assistant for
five years and continued as a Purdue assistant for three more years
with coach Matt Painter after Keady retired as head coach. Martin
accepted his first head coaching position at Missouri State three
”Following basketball through the years, I think Purdue has
always been tough, they play blue-collar type basketball, they play
good defense, they’ve had great success in the Big Ten,” Tennessee
athletics director Mike Hamilton said. ”It’s not a secret that
Purdue’s had a very successful coaching tree, so we reached out to
some of those coaches in the coaching tree and examined his
Martin admits he thought he knew everything he needed to know
about coaching when he left Purdue but quickly found out at
Missouri State that he had plenty to learn about making decisions,
being an administrator, budgets and other responsibilities
exclusive to the head coach. He learned quickly though, and felt
much more comfortable in his second year with the Bears.
That comfort was reflected in Missouri State’s performance. The
Bears went 11-20 in Martin’s first season but improved to 24-12 in
2009-10 and 26-9 in 2010-11, winning this season’s Missouri Valley
Conference regular season championship. Martin was named MVC coach
of the year.
Martin’s not quite as ostentatious as Pearl, who once joined his
players in painting their bare chests orange for a Lady Vols game
and occasionally stood on tables in Tennessee’s campus cafeterias
to drum up support for the Vols.
He still wants to reach out to Pearl, who recruited him out of
high school as an assistant at Iowa, and plans to promote the team
to students and donors by talking with them. He may continue the
tradition of wearing an orange sports coat to Kentucky and
Vanderbilt games – if his wife, Roberta, approves.
Martin said he will demand a lot of the Vols players on and off
the court, expecting them to commit fully to improving their play
and earning their degrees.
And there will be no pouting by players or complaints about
things being tough.
”It’s not a situation where a player can’t develop or can’t
function because he feels he’s being beat down or degraded,” he
said. ”It’s just what we expect. We expect a high level.”