Vol hire prepped by personal trials
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 2:19 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — 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 coach.
“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 Jones.
“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 forward.”
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. 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 pedigree.”
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 ex