Mike Strange: Is Cuonzo Martin up to the challenge?

Mike Strange

The coaching search hardly anyone wanted to make in the first place reached a swift and unexpected conclusion Sunday night.

Cuonzo Martin is somewhat of a surprising hire to be the new face of Tennessee men’s basketball. But that’s entirely irrelevant.

What is relevant is whether he’s a good hire or not. And we have no way of knowing the answer to that one for a while.

In the big picture, it doesn’t matter whether athletic director Mike Hamilton and Martin win the press conference today.

First impressions are nice, but what matters is whether Martin can win over the shell-shocked players he inherits from Bruce Pearl and the recruits he needs to compete for SEC titles in the coming years.

Martin probably wasn’t UT’s first choice. Whether he was first, second or 22nd also doesn’t matter.

Of the handful of major schools sitting at the coach-search poker table, Tennessee wasn’t holding the best hand.

The program faces as-yet undetermined NCAA sanctions. Thus, luring a proven head coach from a major program was going to be a stretch, no matter how deep Tennessee’s pockets.

So you cross a Jamie Dixon or a Jay Wright off the list and go to the next rung. Which is Martin’s rung.

Martin’s head-coaching resume is thin: three years at Missouri State. Thin can still be impressive, especially when you factor in eight years on Gene Keady’s staff at Purdue.

That he might have been in play — or eventually come into play — for other vacancies could have factored in UT’s sense of urgency to get him hired.

A segment of Big Orange fans understandably look longingly to the guys who are headed to Houston: Butler’s Brad Stevens or Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart.

Stevens wasn’t coming to UT. He’s got a better job.

Smart is on an amazing run, but his head-coaching resume is even thinner — two years at VCU.

Smart, from all appearances, is a bright young coach. But for the sake of argument, here’s a point to consider.

If VCU didn’t get virtually the 68th and last bid to the NCAA tournament, no one would be talking about Smart today. VCU finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Martin, meanwhile, coached Missouri State to the title of its league, the Missouri Valley Conference. There’s something to be said for excellence in the longer haul — two months as opposed to two weeks.

We don’t know yet how good of a coach Martin will be but we know enough that his toughness is beyond question.

He hails from East St. Louis, Ill., which will never be confused with Beverly Hills. He, ironically, planned to sign with Illinois. He didn’t, because Illinois in 1990 was facing NCAA sanctions over the Deon Thomas case — initiated by Pearl’s controversial tactics as an Iowa assistant coach.

Instead Martin went to Purdue to play for Keady, who today calls Martin “the best leader I ever had.’’

Then Martin had to overcome a near-fatal bout with cancer — non-Hodgkins lymphoma — in the late 1990s. He lost 40 pounds but said the will to watch his 4-month-old son grow up inspired his survival.

That son, Joshua, is 13. He’ll be looking for a middle school in Knoxville.

And his dad has a challenge on his hands.

Whether Martin was a surprising hire or whether he was Tennessee’s first choice is meaningless and will be forgotten in time.

All that matters is whether he’s up to the challenge.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 or http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 22

BigVolinCarolina writes:

I'm not sure what to think about the hire--I'm really torn. In all, I wish him and the BasketVols the best!

carbonzip writes:

It is what it is and Martin needs fan support to succeed. He has mine.

jigglevols writes:

t .harris s.hopson will be back book it baby

jigglevols writes:

oh kevin ware and chris jones will come to ut book that too go vols

allvol34 writes:

I think this guy could turn out to be a decent coach. Remember we all were saying Bruce who only 6 years ago. The real test is going to be how the players respond to him. GO VOLS AND WELCOME TO KNOXVILLE COACH MARTIN

MusicCityVol writes:

Great player, great coach, determined guy. I love the hire.

Ten Things You Should Know About Cuonzo Martin

arkyvol writes:

i feel like the driver whose car conked out in the middle of the desert. the call for help brings the two yo-yo's from national lampoon's vacation. i take the help and hope for the best, but really, i'd like to get my hands around the throat of the idiot who sent them.

arkyvol writes:

strange's sour grapes analogy is laughable. in case he hasn't heard, shaka's minions are headed to the final four, but so what?

"Martin, meanwhile, coached Missouri State to the title of its league, the Missouri Valley Conference."

somehow, i'm more impressed by shaka's accomplishment, but then, what do i know?

steamboatticket#484773 writes:

Is Cuonzo Challenge Martin up to the challenge?

FearlessFreep writes:

Can't pass judgement on him until we see him in action. Until then, it's unfair to praise or pan this hiring - he had nothing to do with the Pearl fiasco.

He does appear to be a man of great character. That's a good start.

zigvol writes:

in response to FearlessFreep:

Can't pass judgement on him until we see him in action. Until then, it's unfair to praise or pan this hiring - he had nothing to do with the Pearl fiasco.

He does appear to be a man of great character. That's a good start.

Well said!

UTbassdrummer writes:

Great Character, seems super fiery, getting obvious and quick results where he's coaching, and isn't bringing us any BAGGAGE. A lot of vol fans are being really, really humiliating tonight to a dude who picked us over his already good and improving situation in Missouri.

Hurdle one: keep our team together. GO!

UTVolsFan writes:

Welcome to Big Orange County Coach Martin! I'm behind you all the way. GBO!!!

RockyTopRampage writes:

My guess... no. No he is not.

VOL75ga writes:

Coach Martin is an unknown at this level but so was Pearl. Pearl won everyone over and that helped him to establish a winning program and get players that UT hasn’t seen for 35 years (BK and EG). There have been other good players but few like those two. Hopson is a wash and hope he leaves. Harris will be missed; as far as the rapper I don’t think anyone can help him. If Coach Martin can first win the fans (yes we will be a harder sell than the players) he will clear one big hurdle. Showing he can win with what he has will be a big start but getting big name recruits at this point will be hard. Welcome to UT coach; I wish you the best of luck.

vut56#231073 writes:

First, say what you will, this is an objective artifle by Strange. Quick hire? Consider this: whatever one wishes to pile on the AD, and there is plenty, this search was well under way before Pearl was fired. Any manager in any Subway shop will think about the replacement before he fires the bread guy. So...good hire or bad hire, this is no quicky. Further, the most loyal Vols fans must step back and realize we may be a good job but we are not the place that is going to attract that WOW candidate that would please everyone. And all those guys got their start somewhere. Only time will tell; "time will take care of time, if we just leave time alone,"

roanecovol writes:

I like what I see and read about Coach Martin. Welcome to Big Orange Country.

miketn6 writes:

Hopson could use some of what Coach Martin has. I predict Scotty comes back. Not sure about Harris. I'm optmistic about how this will turn out, but the next year or two could still be tough.

Hudro writes:

At least when he talks about the NBA and what it takes to be successful, he knows what he is talking about. The kids who aspire to make it to the league should really listen to him and not the agents who are always telling them how good they are.

hikerdude writes:

in response to zigvol:

Well said!

Agree totally. Only time will tell.

illinoisvolfan writes:

If he can beat cancer, he can coach UT basketball successfully.

Go Gonzo for Cuonzo!

Prostar writes:

What I liked in his bio that I read was how he started coaching fundamentals at MoState when he arrived, that needs to be done here. We are not very good at fundamentals, heck, we weren't very good at much of anything. We played MoState and they almost beat us on our home floor. Coach'em up, isn't that what we always say. Well here's your chance, start with the fundamentals. Discipline plus desire.

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