KNOXVILLE — Fresh off a conference championship in his third season coaching at Missouri State, Cuonzo Martin was content where he was.
“My goal whenever I get to a place is [it’s] my final destination,” he said. “I wasn’t politicking for any jobs because I was happy in my place and I was fine with that.
“But when opportunities like this present themselves, you have to really take a close look at them.”
Cuonzo Martin introduced as new UT coachFormer Missouri State coach, Cuonzo Martin was introduced as the new University of Tennessee men's basketball coach Monday.
Martin did just that, and he was introduced as the University of Tennessee’s new basketball coach Monday afternoon, exactly a week after the popular yet controversial Bruce Pearl was fired.
“I think when you find the person that you believe can have success at this university, why do you want to prolong something?” UT men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton said. “Cuonzo is a guy that was actually sought by a couple of other universities as well, and once we became familiar with him and comfortable with him, we decided that we wanted to go ahead and get a leader in front of these young men so they can begin their healing process and get prepared for [next] season.”
Martin’s contract has not been finalized, but the tentative agreement is for $1.3 million a year for five years.
The 39-year-old Martin, who spent eight years as an assistant at Purdue — where he had played with Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and Chattanooga’s Porter Roberts — acknowledged the difficulty of leaving Missouri State. He took that program from an 11-win season with a decimated roster to Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champion in three years.
“That part was tough,” he said. “Those guys were hurt by it. If wasn’t tough, then you didn’t do a very good job and you weren’t very emotional and you weren’t very genuine, so it should be tough when you’re leaving a situation like that.”
But the UT job was something he couldn’t pass up, and now he begins the process of following Pearl, who took the Volunteers from mediocrity to six consecutive NCAA tournament berths and national relevance.
“I embrace success. I mean, somebody has to follow him,” Martin said. “If you’re not going follow him, you’re afraid of competition, afraid of being successful. For me I didn’t really think about it like that. I thought it was a great opportunity to be at a great program.”
Martin helped win two Big Ten titles at Purdue under coaching legend Gene Keady, who also gave Martin his first coaching gig after his short professional career and overcoming non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His rebuilding job with the Bears and his pedigree under Keady, whose coaching disciples include current head coaches Bruce Weber (Illinois), Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt), Matt Painter (Purdue) and Steve Lavin (St. John’s), caught Hamilton’s attention.
“In the end, character, integrity, toughness and being a part of winning programs along the way,” Hamilton said. “I think Purdue has always been tough. They’ve played blue-collar type basketball, they play good defense and have had great success in the Big Ten. I also think success in the past is a good predictor of future success.”
UT’s remaining players met with Martin late Sunday night after his hiring and in his office Monday before his official introduction. Martin said most of the discussion wasn’t related to basketball.
“It was truly genuine when we met last night,” Martin said. “It’s tough in most cases when you have a coaching change — somebody that recruited you as part of your program, then you have a different guy. They have to feel me out as well as I’m trying to feel those guys out, so it’s a two-way street and that’s fine.”
Said junior guard Scotty Hopson: “Everyone seems comfortable with him. They’re looking forward to the opportunity. Guys are even talking about changing their numbers — a new change, a new face. He’s definitely a straightforward guy, a guy that’s going to motivate me to get better. He’s a guy I can see myself playing for.”
Martin, who said he likely will bring some assistant coaches from Missouri State, expects both Hopson and freshman forward Tobias Harris to put their names in the NBA draft. He’s also spoken briefly with both of the Vols’ signees, guard Kevin Ware and Chris Jones.
“They’re very interested,” Martin said, “and it’s just a matter of me sitting down and meeting with them after the Final Four and touching base and make sure both parties understand what we’re trying to do.”
Martin’s Missouri State teams were known for their efficiency on offense, scoring points on fewer possessions without many turnovers. Intense man-to-man defense, the staple of Purdue’s teams under Keady and Painter, may be the Bears’ calling card, though.
Though he’s not taken a team to the NCAA tournament and has just three years of head-coaching experience, Martin doesn’t lack the confidence that he can handle the pressure of a program that’s bigger now than before Pearl’s arrival.
“I think in most cases the pressure’s what you put on yourself and how you allow it to affect you, whether it’s good or bad,” Martin said. “To me, it’s doing a job to the best of my ability, and that’s the most important thing. As far as how the pressure goes, I don’t consume myself with it and I don’t get discouraged by it. I’m here to do a job.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrownTFP.
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 ...