Leadership was Cuonzo Martin's calling

Former teammate Ellis believes UT 'has found a gem'

Cuonzo Martin, left, speaks to reporters during a news conference, Monday, March 28, 2011, in Knoxville, Tenn., after being named the new men's head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee replacing Bruce Pearl.

Photo by Wade Payne, Associated Press

Cuonzo Martin, left, speaks to reporters during a news conference, Monday, March 28, 2011, in Knoxville, Tenn., after being named the new men's head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee replacing Bruce Pearl.

Cuonzo Martin Q&A: Part One

Cuonzo Martin's life - all 39 years, two careers, three countries and three universities of it - has been full of adjustments.

They range all the way from the transition of living in crime-riddled East St. Louis, Ill., to the relatively posh settings of West Lafayette, Ind.; to playing alongside an eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and then leading the same team on his own to similar accolades; to living a life without cancer and living one as a cancer survivor.

The latest adjustment occurred Sunday, when Martin left a successful three-year run with Missouri State to take over as Tennessee's new men's basketball coach. It's one that Martin said he hopes is a final destination to a career that's stretched the map from Vancouver to Italy.

"He will push (UT) to that level to get them to understand that there's more they can be doing," said LaPhonso Ellis, who played 11 years in the NBA and also alongside Martin at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis.

"I'm not saying that because he's a personal friend; I'm saying that because I value his coaching experience, I value all that he's learned, I value his tactical approach to the game from both sides of the floor and I feel Tennessee has found a gem."

Ellis, now an ESPN college basketball color commentator, was the 6-foot-8 star in the middle at Lincoln, which won three consecutive Illinois state titles in the late 1980s.

Martin, though, was the leader, said Bennie Lewis, who coached the tandem.

"He was just so tough, followed instructions," Lewis said. "He took the guys and made sure everybody stayed together."

Lewis said he often field would calls from Martin on Sundays, the team's lone off day.

"He'd say, 'Coach, we've got nothing to do, why don't you come up to the gym?' " Lewis said. "As coaches, we would just sit and watch those guys practice, and they would go so hard against each other - we thought it looked like they hated each other."

Ellis, who went on to star at Notre Dame and was the fifth overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft, was the one blessed with all the height, raw athleticism and talent. Martin, Ellis said, was the one who had to figure out unique ways to get to the basket, constantly reinventing his style of play based on what the other team would let him do.

"He had the ball-handling ability to break you down and get to the rim, but he wasn't one of the guys that was going to dunk it on you on our team," Ellis said. "He had to come up with creative ways to beat people."

That creativity was elevated to a completely different level at Purdue, when Martin, once again, was sharing the court with a superstar. This time it was Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, who was the first overall draft pick in the 1994 NBA draft after leading the Boilermakers to the Elite Eight.

Martin didn't struggle by any means in his first two years at Purdue, as he averaged nearly 12 points per game as a sophomore. But he wasn't slashing to the basket with the same ease as he could at Lincoln, a source of frustration that prompted Martin to spend hours in the gym honing a 3-point stroke that simply didn't exist through the first 20 years of his life.

After two years with the Boilermakers, Martin was 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. By the end of his career, he was Purdue's all-time leader with 179 3-pointers.

"Cuonzo was not only a good player, but he was one of the most popular players," said Larry Clisby, Purdue's longtime radio play-by-play announcer. "He just had a way about him and endeared himself to the masses."

Bill Rowe had heard all about those endearing qualities when, in 2008, he embarked on one of his final coaching searches as Missouri State's athletic director. He talked to Gene Keady, the legendary Purdue coach, Matt Painter, the current Purdue coach, and even longtime official Eddie Hightower to make sure Martin didn't "scream, cuss or raise hell" from the sidelines.

They all said the same thing. At 36 years old, Martin, who already had grown up in one of the toughest cities in America, played professionally in two countries, survived cancer and served as an assistant under Keady and Painter for a combined eight years, was more than capable of handling life as a head coach.

"He came in and did exactly what he planned . . . he went from the bottom to the top," Rowe said, referring to Martin's brief but productive time at Missouri State that resulted in the school's first postseason title in 2010 at the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and the first Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship in 2011.

"If I had been raised in East St. Louis, I don't know if I would be as good of a person as Cuonzo Martin."

That's where it all started for Martin, who grew up in a single-parent home with his mother, Sandra, one brother and two sisters. And that's where Martin constantly retreats to whenever he has the chance because "that's one of the reasons why I'm standing here today."

"The things you go through, the things you see and how it develops you into a person, I appreciate the fact and I applaud the fact that I'm from East St. Louis," Martin said. "I wear it with honor."

Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble

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Comments » 30

MothershipChip writes:

The Vols have made a spectacular hire that will provide the integrity that this program has been lacking. I have supported Volunteer basketball my entire life, at times even more so than football.

I remember sitting in the dining area at Thompson Boiling Arena when I was a student and Buzz's picture was still on the wall. It was only a few days after Peterson had been fired and Pearl had been hired.

A few tables away from me were some giant dudes who were obviously basketball players and assistants. You could feel their excitement. As we left to go back across the street to the 90.3 studios I knew the future was bright for the Vols. Today I feel like the future may even be brighter. This is not the rebuilding of a broken program; this is the rebirth of a program in turmoil.

This program has a new dedication to basketball that it has never had in my lifetime. By hiring Cuonzo Martin we have taken a huge risk; but he is a living success story. A man who has survived the numerous battles he has will weather the NCAA storm and keep the Vols in the national spotlight.

All season I have heard people say "What parent would send their student athlete to play basketball at an unethical place like UT?!" The answer with Martin is now simple, a parent who wants their young child to grow up to be a man.

The Gene Keady coaching tree has a proven track record, I think that we have the next member of that great tree. I think we will see in the long run that he has a better basketball IQ than Pearl ever did. As far as recruiting, the best thing he said during the press conference is he is looking not just at the "best players" but the "top 100". His reasoning was spot on, we need to get guys here to build a dynasty and develop as men and players, not just guys looking to go pro.

All in all this is probably the best hire we could make, and I think everyone will be on board once the season gets rolling.

Go Big Orange

Go Coach Couzo!!!!

OSUVol writes:

Thank you, MothershipChip, for a thoughtful and considered post.

A welcome change from some of the irrational rants we see here from time to time.

VOLDoll writes:

Congrats on the hire! Seems to be the breath of fresh air our program really needs to clean up Knoxville. God only knows it needs a major scrubbing after Pearl.

BustaRhymes writes:

This was a great hire - It's kinda like Mike Hamilton has learned that character really does matter...the hard way... We now have two competent, credible men of character running our men's football and basketball programs. I see great things for both coaches and both programs.

Welcome to Rocky Top coach Zo!

Go Vols!!!

eyeonu writes:

in response to BustaRhymes:

This was a great hire - It's kinda like Mike Hamilton has learned that character really does matter...the hard way... We now have two competent, credible men of character running our men's football and basketball programs. I see great things for both coaches and both programs.

Welcome to Rocky Top coach Zo!

Go Vols!!!

Thanks for your comments and a show of an understaning of the problems. Mike has sure learned from mistakes and is a good AD. Three years from now, after some great wins from great young men, the venom spitters and instant gratification seekers will have to turn to lottery to vent their spleen.

skm writes:

"Lewis said he often field would calls from Martin on Sundays, the team's lone off day"

ouch, looks like you guys need some rest! lol.

really excited about this hire. i am anxious to see how cuonzo' recruits next off season. i imagine this year will be a wash recruiting wise.

TommyJack writes:

Welcome, Coach.

uttcut writes:

GBO!
And that's a good looking family CCM has there...hope he's more dedicated to them than CBP (and I'm a CBP fan). I think this may end up being a great hire.

CCLC writes:

it's a good hire for the Vols when you take into account the program's situation, and the uncertainty over the pending NCAA penalties.

VolTitan writes:

I am excited about this hire, he has class and he knows bball for sure and he seems HONEST... Just hope he can get through all the phooey the NCAA is going to throw at us, and get's us back to where we were before Pearl lied and took us right back down!!!

stroker writes:

in response to MothershipChip:

The Vols have made a spectacular hire that will provide the integrity that this program has been lacking. I have supported Volunteer basketball my entire life, at times even more so than football.

I remember sitting in the dining area at Thompson Boiling Arena when I was a student and Buzz's picture was still on the wall. It was only a few days after Peterson had been fired and Pearl had been hired.

A few tables away from me were some giant dudes who were obviously basketball players and assistants. You could feel their excitement. As we left to go back across the street to the 90.3 studios I knew the future was bright for the Vols. Today I feel like the future may even be brighter. This is not the rebuilding of a broken program; this is the rebirth of a program in turmoil.

This program has a new dedication to basketball that it has never had in my lifetime. By hiring Cuonzo Martin we have taken a huge risk; but he is a living success story. A man who has survived the numerous battles he has will weather the NCAA storm and keep the Vols in the national spotlight.

All season I have heard people say "What parent would send their student athlete to play basketball at an unethical place like UT?!" The answer with Martin is now simple, a parent who wants their young child to grow up to be a man.

The Gene Keady coaching tree has a proven track record, I think that we have the next member of that great tree. I think we will see in the long run that he has a better basketball IQ than Pearl ever did. As far as recruiting, the best thing he said during the press conference is he is looking not just at the "best players" but the "top 100". His reasoning was spot on, we need to get guys here to build a dynasty and develop as men and players, not just guys looking to go pro.

All in all this is probably the best hire we could make, and I think everyone will be on board once the season gets rolling.

Go Big Orange

Go Coach Couzo!!!!

What a good post. I wish all the nay sayers on here would read it.

somebodywhoknows writes:

Coach Martin can look right here in our own back yard and find some great talent. Take a look at West High School. They have some really great juniors who are maybe the best players in the state. Somebody please let him know.

mlynn1 writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Hey Vandy fan, you will have your chance to hire Byrd when Stallings is hired by Purdue. If it wasn't this you would be b__ching about something else pertaining to Tennessee.

mlynn1 writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Your wrong again genius, those reports have been refuted, no offer was ever made. The more you type the more you_____.

CCLC writes:

Tennessee’s new men’s basketball head coach was assured by America’s Sharpest Athletic Director™ that all is under control in Vol Land.

VOLS52 writes:

I applaud this hiring as well as the hiring of CCD. Finally we have coaches that will stand for what all parents want in a coach. A man that will lead by example, a man that will stand for doing what is right ALL the time. Isn't this what UT athletics was built on? Going back to Neyland and Mears? Isn't this the foundation that built the VOLNATION? If these men do not succeed on the playing surfaces, they will succeed in the lives of young men and when or if they are replaced, it won't be because of NCAA rules violations or unethical practices. We will not be an embarrassing headline on ESPN every other day/week/month. As a high school coach for 30+ years and now one year into small college coaching I can attest that today's young men and women are crying out for leadership in their life. What I have learned in my short time recruiting is that HONESTY and INTEGRITY make a difference. Having no idea what recruiting today's young high school athlete would be like, I can say that is is amazing and truly enjoyable. Getting to meet so many neat kids and kids that are hungry for leadership from their next coach has been AWESOME. I personally have 11 quality kids, quality students and quality players that choose our small non-flashy program because of honesty. No sugar -coating, no Coach Cal salesmanship, just the Honest truth, take it or leave it. Mike Hamilton may have many shortcomings, don't we all, but it is obvious that his 2nd hire in both major sports at UT are MAJOR upgrades in the things that matter most in LIFE- HONESTY, INTEGRITY, MORALS, VALUES, & FAMILY. The LADY VOLS have had this in place for many, many years and it has seemed to work out pretty well for them. Coach Fulmer brought this to the football program for many, many years and he led us to much success. I do not think enough has been said about the gamble that CCM is taking for his career. Yes, he can make a lot more $$ now but should he fail, where will his career be? Thanks Coach for what you have already given to the VOLNATION is less than 24 hours ( a MAN of Character) May God Bless you in your position and all those young men that will be under your watch and care. Coach Pearl took our men's basketball program to HIGH;s in wins that we had never seen before-Thanks Coach, however, he also took us to new lows and hopefully, for his sake, he has learned from his mistake and will be given a chance to do what he has been gifted to do-coach and teach, but this time even better for those young men he will lead. CDD and CCM both have the simple yet often forgotten policy of "JUST DO THE RIGHT THING"- Be thankful VOLNATION- the Best is yet to come.

Vols1998 writes:

If the Purdue job comes open and CCM does not entertain a call, then my confidence is there.

GBO!

TommyJack writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Straight from his KNS cubicle.

VOLS52 writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

they didn't

Neyland writes:

we will see how this coach does. im getting on the band wagon till i see results over a period of time. mike hamiltons track record for hiring coaches isnt that good. he fired 3 good coaches and hired 3 that got their programs under investigation. in my opinion pearl deserved to be fired but hamilton should go as well. replace hamilton with someone who is very familiar with ut traditions and not just a fund raiser. hire phillip fulmer who's blood runs orange and white.

Vols1998 writes:

in response to stroker:

What a good post. I wish all the nay sayers on here would read it.

If Purdue does not call CCM, then I agree with you 100%, but there is a chance if the current coach goes to Missouri, then CCM is on the short list with Purdue, who can pay him the same if not more because of his connection to the school.

JDL211 writes:

in response to Vols1998:

If the Purdue job comes open and CCM does not entertain a call, then my confidence is there.

GBO!

Purdue fans have their shorts in a knot over Matt Painter leaving. Decided to visit their fan site to see how they were taking it. Saw this post:

Can Zo Martin back out of Tennessee?

has he signed anything or just given a verbal that he would take the gig. How is what Zo has done with UT different than what Keady did with UofA back in '89?

just thinking PROACTIVELY that I would want Zo as our next coach instead of near anybody else in the country. purdue guy, wears his passion on his sleeve, work ethic, proven at building a program, etc etc.

ReverendOrange writes:

Regarding Hamilton: there's always more to it than just the latest hire or fire. Mal Moore at AL has the dubious distinction of hiring Dennis Franchione and Mike Price, only to follow it up with landing Saban. I moved to AL in '99 and heard nothing but bickering about him until the Saban hire. And now it looks like they've got a decent basketball coach too. I have not always agreed with Hamilton but he does seem to get things done. As long as the AD can stay in the black, that will keep him in the good graces of the Trustees and hopefully the fans as well.

hueypilot writes:

in response to PRNDL:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Al Bundy apty describes you.
Bruce was great, but he committed a firable offense, and even though the administration tried to salvage him, the NCAA said fire him or you'll regret it. Don't see anyone saying CM is the second coming. He's just our new coach and as such, deserves a certain level of respect from real UT fans. Bruce is a CHEAT? Not so much a CHEAT as he lied. That's why Bruce was fired. Have you ever been fired Al? Just wondering, because people get fired for saying dumb things as well as for lying.

dislikethemtrolls writes:

Lot of good post on here for a change, except for cantstaystupid and aliceinwonderlandclub. Glad to have you coach.

mhsvol writes:

There's no question that the more you hear about Martin, the better he sounds. While I totally support him and his principles, I must also say that his mentor, Gene Keady at Purdue, never got any of his teams past the Elite Eight, and he had some great teams. Having said that, I will say that if Martin's players never advance beyond the Elite Eight, but turn out to be the kind of men that he and Gene Keady molded, then how can you argue that these kids will have had one of the best college experiences imaginable? I, for one, can support that above any Final Four or National Championship.

BigVolFaninSC writes:

I am still going to wait and reserve judgement! Gees, the other day most were saying this was a terrible hire!...and how could MH make such a move? Today, he's the best thing since sliced bread! I am concerned about his youth and inexperience! With that being said, he may be the next great up and coming coach! I just don't think that a program that is #3 in home attendance should have to hire a coach that is still "cutting his teeth"! I know that the NCAA is hanging over like a black cloud, but Tennessee is a great place to build (or rebuild) a team! I would love to know which coaches MH did contact and what those coaches said and thus, see his thought process. Again, I have nothing against Martin and I hope he can restore and improve the program! I just would have preferred less questions about experience! But, now that the decision has been made, let's get behind him and help get the Vols back up where we belong!

JDL211 writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

You're just stirring it up on here right? You can't be serious. Rick Byrd is a fine coach. I seriously thought they could beat Wisconsin. But 25 years in the same small, comfortable place? If he had the balls it will take to be head coach at UT he would have been out of Belmont 20 years ago.

VolNExile writes:

in response to JDL211:

You're just stirring it up on here right? You can't be serious. Rick Byrd is a fine coach. I seriously thought they could beat Wisconsin. But 25 years in the same small, comfortable place? If he had the balls it will take to be head coach at UT he would have been out of Belmont 20 years ago.

Probably the most sensible post I've read yet about Rick Byrd.

There's nothing wrong with finding your happy spot and staying there. But that doesn't mean that you'll be successful elsewhere.

CantStandSaban, since you love Rick Byrd so much, why aren't you screaming for him to coach Vandy?

volcycle writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

CantStandSaban...Are you a racist? Is that why you have so much negative to say about this hire?

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