Wiedmer column: Hamilton noticed Martin long before Pearl's dismissal

Wiedmer column: Hamilton noticed Martin long before Pearl's dismissal

March 29th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscollege

KNOXVILLE - The vast majority of University of Tennessee basketball fans may little note nor long remember Nov. 17, 2010. The Volunteers edged Missouri State 60-56 that night inside Thompson-Boling Arena, a victory to send them to the Preseason NIT semifinals in New York City.

But Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton never forgot it. Not because the Big Orange won, but because of the way the Bears played in defeat.

"I definitely put Cuonzo Martin in my Rolodex that night," Hamilton said Monday afternoon as he explained Martin's hiring as UT's 18th head coach.

"I loved the way his team competed, the discipline they showed, the defense they played. They were very impressive."

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville announced the hiring of former Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin on Sunday night, replacing Bruce Pearl. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Martin had been very impressive as a Purdue Boilermaker some 17 years earlier inside the same arena, scoring 29 points and hitting a school-record eight 3-pointers in an 83-78 NCAA Southeast Regional semifinal win over Kansas.

"So I've had some good memories of this place for a long time," he said. "Hopefully some of these guys [current UT players] can have some shooting nights like that in this building.

He even has good memories of Chattanooga, having played there a few days before Christmas the following season.

"That's (former Purdue teammate and roommate) Porter Roberts' hometown," said Martin, who led the Boilermakers to a 94-77 victory that year over the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"Chattanooga's a nice place. I don't guess I've talked to Porter in almost a year, but hopefully I'll get a chance to see him a lot more now."

We won't have a chance to sensibly grade Hamilton's decision to replace the embattled Bruce Pearl with Martin for at least a year or two. Maybe more if the NCAA comes down heavier than many believe it will in penalizing the Vols for Pearl's misdeeds.

But Monday afternoon was plenty of time to see what impressed Hamilton about the native of East St. Louis, Ill., one of the nation's most economically depressed and dangerous cities.

"There's plenty of time to work on their basketball," Martin said at one point of the seven UT players he expects to coach and the two others - Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris - he hopes will forgo the NBA for another year of college.

"I'm more concerned right now with how they act. I want them to know it's important to do things the right way. Be on time. Go to class every day. The basketball will take care of itself."

There has been a perception, right or wrong, that it was the other way for far too long, that Pearl too often put basketball first. That as long as the wins rolled in and the seats filled up, nothing else mattered.

Perhaps that's why Hamilton wasted little time saying of Martin, "Cuonzo will win at the University of Tennessee. More than that, he's going to win the right way."

Perhaps that's also why UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek added, "We had to have a coach who played by the rules."

Not that it was all serious and somber Monday.

Martin's charming wife, Roberta, who stayed home with their three children during Missouri State's November visit, told of 9-year-old Chase entering the Vols' practice facility and "his eyes growing as big as saucers. Our kids are young, so it's difficult when they move. But when Chase walked into the practice facility he said, 'This is going to be OK.'"

Three-year-old daughter Addison apparently was just as easy to please.

"She asked if they had cheerleaders here," Roberta recalled. "As soon as she knew she could have a Tennessee cheerleading outfit, she was happy as could be. She was ready to move."

Such moves are hardest on the current players, of course. They didn't sign to play basketball for Cuonzo Martin. They signed to play for Bruce Pearl. But players are also young, and therefore resilient.

"It's been tough," said rising senior guard Cameron Tatum. "I've been torn. I know the NCAA had a job to do. I know Mike Hamilton had a job to do. But Bruce Pearl was my coach."

Yet it didn't take long for Martin to impress Tatum during a late Sunday night meeting.

"He never said anything about becoming the best player we could be," Tatum related. "He said a lot about being the best person we could be."

Said Hamilton a few minutes later, as if to highlight Tatum's words: "Kids want leadership, discipline, direction. Now they have that with a new coach."

Thanks in part to Nov. 17, 2010, they now have a chance to win the right way. Or to borrow a line from young Chase Martin, for the first time in a long time, you get the sense that this Big Orange program is going to be OK.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.