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

years ago.

”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.”