KNOXVILLE—Cuonzo Martin’s long day was nearing its end.
In just the afternoon 12 days ago, Tennessee’s new head basketball coach had met with the local media, conducted three consecutive fast-paced, nonstop 30-minute individual workout sessions with his current players on the Pratt Pavilion practice court and joined his team for the ensuing weightlifting session, a task that required a brief visit to the trainers’ room and a shower.
Even after all that, though, Martin walked into his office in Thompson-Boling Arena, grabbed a bottle of water, sat down in one of the comfortable chairs near the door and spoke with the Chattanooga Times Free Press about his past personal and professional life and the present and future of the Volunteers basketball program.
The full transcript of that interview is below.
Q: I think I already know the answer to this, but who is your biggest influence in terms of basketball and why?
A: “I would have to say the biggest outside of growing up in East St. Louis would be [former Purdue] Coach [Gene] Keady just from the standpoint of — and I always say this — as good of a teacher he was when it came to basketball, I gained just as much if not more knowledge off the court on how to become a man, how to develop life skills, how to go about your everyday business. I think those things really help young men in the long haul, not just a two-year or four-year period as a college basketball player, but I just think in life. I gained a lot of knowledge from Coach on how to go about your business every day.”
Q: You’ve talked about the influence he’s had on you off the court. Do you have a vivid memory of an instance in that sense?
A: “It was tough my freshman year [at Purdue] because I kind of went against the grain. Never disrespectful, but I think my junior year I had two major knee surgeries and my season or career could have been over at any point because my knees were that bad. Coach just said, ‘You have to make a decision on what you want to do.’ I might have missed a class or didn’t do something in the classroom, and [Keady told me] I just had to make a decision at this point. Once again I was never disrespectful, but I kind of went through the motions in the classroom because it wasn’t really a priority to me until my junior year.
“It just really made me understand the importance of getting a degree, because up until that point I really had no concept of what it meant to have a degree because not many people around me had a degree, even in my neighborhood and area. It wasn’t really a thought, and [Keady] made me really understand the importance of making a decision before it’s too late. At that point before my junior year, at the beginning of the season I made the necessary adjustments and I became successful on and off the court.”
Q: You’ve talked about growing up in East St. Louis and how it was difficult. What about was so difficult?
A: “Well, I think on the peripheral people say it’s difficult. Now, me standing here at 39 years old, I can say it was a tough environment. But when you’re in it, it’s all you know. It’s a everyday lifestyle. Everybody grew up the same way; everybody has the same amount of income, same lifestyle. You have food on the table, don’t have a lot of clothing; you don’t have access to movies and going to ballparks and all those things. But I didn’t understand it was tough when I was in it because it was just a way of life for me. The gangs, drug violence and all that — I mean, I’m just thinking it’s an everyday lifestyle.
“But as I got older and I went to college and I got out of college, I realized, man, it was a tough environment. You heard the things that people said about East St. Louis: It’s the murder capital in certain years — 89, ’90, ’93, ’94, whatever years. But you really didn’t think it. As strange as it sounds, when I was living and going through it — it’s amazing how your mind works — when I’m 16 and 17 years old and they’re saying East St. Louis is the murder capital of the world, we wore that as a badge of honor. It was like, ‘Wow.’ Now here I am, 39 years old just like, ‘Man, that was a sad thing to actually think that.’
“Now I would say it’s tough. It’s gotten a lot better, but when I got out of college I realized how tough it was growing up in that environment. But when you’re in it, that’s all you know.”
Q: You mentioned some of the drugs and gang violence and that kind of stuff. Did that hit really close to home for you at any point or an instance where you lost a really good friend or something like that?
A: “Plenty of them. Some guys spent years in prison. My actual brother spent time, 10 years, in prison. I guess I was in it. I never sold a drug in my life, but it was an everyday lifestyle. My cousin spent 15 years in prison. I was blessed to overcome.”
Q: What was your situation with your parents — your mother Sandra and your father Cuonzo?
A: “My mom’s always been there. My dad was — if I wanted, I knew where I could find him. It wasn’t really a relationship outside of two or three times maybe a year or sporadically my senior year of high school here or there. I knew if I wanted to find him, I could find him, but my mom raised me.”
Q: Did she have a big influence on keeping you out of some that stuff going on around you?
A: “She and also I think it was God’s plan at the end of the day, because growing up with the things I’ve seen and the things I’ve witnessed on an everyday basis just going to school, it’s like you’re in the trenches just going to get to high school. Just doing the right things. My brother, he was very intelligent, went to college but just got caught up in some different things. My mom, I would say, that’s where it starts and finishes with me.”
Q: When you took the Missouri State job, what was the situation there? I know I’ve read and you’ve talked about the decimated roster and limited scholarship players, but how tough of a rebuilding job was that? And when you got there, what was going through your mind in terms of your ability to handle it?
A: “It’s tough, I think, when you take over a program, especially your first head-coaching job. I knew I would work hard, I would do the right things, we would compete, we would eventually get enough players — good enough players, the type of players to be successful — but you don’t know when. It was tough the first year. We won 11 games. We had five, then we had six guys on scholarship, and we had to go back in April and just try to scramble and get other guys. We had a guy that was a senior that ended up getting his sixth year [of eligibility], so we had six on scholarship.
“That first year was tough. The good thing about our guys [was that they] competed and they played hard and they showed signs. We got better the next year and won 24 games and won the CIT tournament. This year we went 26-9 and won the [school’s] first conference championship in Missouri Valley [Conference] history and had the first player of the year in Missouri Valley history, first coach of the year in Missouri Valley history.
“It was just the work we put behind it, but I would rather have it where you have to build it from scratch up and work. I like that environment. I wouldn’t necessarily say I would get lazy if everything was set in place, but I think my focus level is at a higher level. As strange as it may sound, I hate to take credit for what somebody else has done. If you have a team that’s rolling, everybody’s back and you’re predicted to be champions — for me, I wouldn’t feel like I was part of that. At Missouri State, we had our hand in that success and it was a great feeling.”
Q: Do you feel like there’s a big rebuilding job here at Tennessee? Let’s hypothetically say Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson don’t come back and you have seven scholarship guys plus two or three signees. You’d have a young team that’s not got a lot of size unless you get a post player late. Is this a big rebuilding job or how does it compare to rebuilding Missouri State?
A: “I think it would be similar if you lose those two guys. I think you have seven core guys, and the good thing about it for the most part is you’ve got some key players returning. You’re trying to give them a new system, a different way of playing even though they had success in a different style. Now you’ve got these guys that they had success with guys that played a high role. Now you have these guys that were role players or didn’t play a lot. Now you’re trying to get them to have the level of confidence to be starters and key players in what we’re trying to do.
“That’ll be the big adjustment — being thrown in the fire right away in the Maui [Invitational]. You have to really learn on the fly and you have to be competitive.”
Q: You talked about your meeting with Chris Jones, the point guard out of Memphis who signed with the previous staff. Do you think getting him to stick with Tennessee through the transition was an important deal on more than just the level of you’re potentially getting a really good player? It allows you possibly to keep that connection in Memphis and it also looks good publicly.
A: “Obviously perception is everything, but just for me it was really just doing a job. If he would have said, ‘Coach, I want to go in a different direction,’ it would have been tough. We would have continued to push forward, because in the end it works itself out. To his credit, you want a guy that wants to be a part of your program, and he wanted to be part of it. So I think that’s a true plus for us.
“Memphis is an area we definitely want to recruit in, but I think coaches would understand in Memphis if he decided to go somewhere else. It’s just part of the job. You look around the country — every coaching change, somebody wants [his] release. That’s just part of it. Some guys go back to that same school, but you have to give the young man the opportunity to make a decision, and it’s only fair. I think it was good for him to be a part of us because he’s a very talented young man, and I’d love to coach him.”
Q: You’ve mentioned that you’re just doing a job. Is there a big adjustment coming to this level in your mind? What do you think is going to be the biggest adjustment for you?
A: “Well, I think the big adjustment when you talk about Missouri State to the SEC, the talent level’s different, obviously. The competition level is a step further, but for me, I’ve been at this level. I played in the Big Ten at the highest level. I was an assistant coach in the Big Ten for eight years, so it’s not like I’ve never been to this level. I understand what it takes and how to compete.
“I think the biggest key for me is just learning coaching styles, and that’s the same adjustment I had to make at Missouri State. Not only learning the personnel of players and finding my way as a coach. Now I think the adjustment is learning certain coaches’ styles — when they call a timeout, what’s their substitution pattern, how they go about their business. You can get just as much information studying the coaches as studying the players.”
Q: Given the situation with Tennessee basketball with the whole NCAA deal and with the firing of Bruce Pearl, what do you think the national perception is of Tennessee basketball?
A: “I think it’s good, but I just think when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, that’ll be a hurdle we have to overcome because everybody that’s recruiting against Tennessee will say, ‘Well, what about the NCAA sanctions?’ I think once we find out what the sanctions are, we can move forward. I think that is the biggest plus.
“But in most cases, players just want to play basketball. They want to have an opportunity to go to postseason tournaments. I think if we’re able to play in the postseason, I think we’ll be fine. Outside of that, as long as it’s minor things under the table, maybe a scholarship here and there if that happens, I think you can be OK. But I think you’re still able to recruit if you’re able to have postseason opportunities.”
Q: Do you feel you have to improve the perception by the things that you do?
A: Well, I just think my everyday who I am will take care of itself. Whether or not you have to improve it or not, I am who I am, I am what I am and I think we’ll go about our business and try to be successful. We’re not trying to sweep anything under the rug. It is what it is.
“Coach Pearl had success here, so you have to acknowledge that. That’s a selling point for us — we have had success here. It’s just unfortunate some of the things that have taken place, but they’ve had success here so you have to credit where it’s due. We’ll feed off that and keep pushing forward.”
Q: Finally, how do you make this your program? How do your put your stamp on it?
A: “Really just winning ballgames — that’s the bottom line for me. I’m not trying to rewrite history; I’m just trying to do my job and be successful and take it one day at a time.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...