Cuonzo Martin may still be a newcomer to the Tennessee community.
But the men’s basketball coach doesn’t have to be an expert on all the counties in the area to know they need help, particularly after his first tour on the Big Orange Caravan gave him a close-up look at the recent tornado damage in Cleveland, Tenn.
With that in mind, Martin and his new staff put on some aprons from Home Depot and got in line with a large group of volunteers on Tuesday morning at Regal Soccer Stadium to load up a truck full of supplies to help the victims of the storms that have claimed at least 37 lives in 10 area counties, reaching out to the neighbors still in the process of getting to know him.
“It’s one of those things, you have to do your part as a community,” Martin said. “Tennessee has really done a great job being involved and helping, and I just think it’s what you have to do and it’s what you need to do.
“I think in anything like this, whether you’re coaching or you’re just a regular, everyday guy, I think you want to support and be helpful — it’s your community. I think more than anything, that’s how you should look at it. Not necessarily because I’m the coach at Tennessee, I’m out here because I could be a part of this as well. This could happen to my family, so that’s the reason you really do these things.”
The athletic department and representatives from both men’s and women’s sports did plenty to give back to the various areas of need throughout the day, giving the Red Cross $25,000 and filling UT’s football equipment truck with necessities until early in the evening to send to residents in Bledsoe, Bradley, Cocke, Greene, Hamilton, Johnson, McMinn, Monroe, Rhea and Washington counties.
That the basketball program draws its attendance heavily from East Tennessee wasn’t lost on Martin or athletic director Mike Hamilton as the Vols begin the transition to a different regime, though it certainly wasn’t the motivating factor for the new coaching staff or the couple players packing up the bottles of water and toiletries.
“He’s been here long enough already to appreciate the fact that the thing that makes Tennessee athletics so special is the grassroots support from our fans across the state,” Hamilton said. “If one of our fans is suffering, then we’re all suffering. The tragedy of what happened a couple weeks ago is significant. Certainly there’s been a lot of national attention for what happened in Alabama, as you would expect, but we’ve had our set of tragedies here in East Tennessee.
“For basketball in particular, our fan base and most of the folks that are coming to our games are in East Tennessee. He’s smart enough to realize that we need to reach out when we can, and he’s actively engaged down here throwing boxes around and bottles of water and got a number of his team members doing the same and that’s good.”
That’s not necessarily a change of direction for basketball, which Hamilton pointed out had won several community service awards over the last couple years under former coach Bruce Pearl.
But Tuesday might have been another example of how quickly Martin seems to be adjusting to his new home.
“Once I took over the job, I was a part of it,” Martin said. “I mean, I’m excited about the future of our basketball team but also this, I think it’s very humbling because I know our fans have been affected by it. You just have to do your part.
“It feels good. The shoe could be on the other foot at some point, and I like to think somebody would try to help my family out.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward