Mike Strange: It's business, but Cuonzo Martin can start rivalry

Mike Strange

As college basketball adversaries go, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have stood the test of time. All the ingredients for a heated rivalry are present.

They share the same state and the same conference. They often recruit the same players.

They earn rivalry bonus points because their respective coaches don't always like each other.

Ray Mears, the consummate showman, used to drive Vandy's Roy Skinner to distraction in the 1960s and '70s.

Three decades later, Bruce Pearl resurrected Mears' orange blazer to wear against the Commodores and Kentucky. Kevin Stallings, the resident Vandy coach since 1999, was never enamored of Pearl.

Now comes Cuonzo Martin to the rivalry. He and Stallings will have to work at it to get a snit going because they share a common past.

They're Purdue blood brothers, disciples of Gene Keady, the man who coached them both and then jump-started their careers by hiring them as assistant coaches.

Stallings is Martin's senior by 13 years, so the two never shared a locker room or an office in West Lafayette, Ind.

"He was gone by the time I got to Purdue but I've been knowing him a long time,'' Martin said Monday.

"When we're out recruiting in July, sometimes

the Purdue guys get together. We've talked quite a bit. Kevin and Bruce Weber (the Illinois coach and former Keady assistant) are best friends.''

The Stallings-Martin link goes back beyond Purdue. They grew up about 10 miles apart, Martin in East St. Louis, Ill., and Stallings just up the road in Collinsville.

When Martin landed the UT job in March, he chatted up Stallings about his new turf. Martin didn't know a lot about Tennessee or the SEC.

"He told me the ins and outs,'' Martin said. "He gave me a lot of good information.''

Here's a question I would have asked:

How big of a disadvantage is the visiting coach at in Vandy's unique gym with its baseline benches?

How about a tip for communicating with your team when they're sprinting away from you toward the far end of the floor?

Martin has never set foot in Memorial Gym before today's shootaround. He would do well to copy Stallings' trademark whistle to get his team's attention 70 feet away.

While the two coaches never crossed paths at Purdue, they were indelibly stamped by their experience there.

"He's an excellent coach, a very good person an extremely hard worker and very full of character,'' Stallings said of Martin last fall.

All reasons why Keady gave Martin a ringing endorsement for the UT job. Martin looks at the Commodores and sees Boilermaker signatures: motion offense and hard-nosed defense.

"He's probably more like Coach than I am,'' Martin said. "He was around when Coach first got to Purdue. He knew Coach when Coach was rough.

"When I got Coach, I wouldn't say he was subdued but more laid-back. He was still tough but I think he was a lot tougher when Kevin was there.''

Tonight, there won't be any secret Purdue handshakes. The animosity radiating between the two benches has declined but one coach is trying to win an SEC title and the other is trying to get his first road win and establish his program.

And it's still Vandy-Tennessee.

"Business is still business,'' said Martin. "Both teams are trying to win a ballgame.''

I'll bet Keady will be in front of his TV, watching to see which one does.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 5

HtownVol writes:

Remember when that Vandy wannabe Grad was talking all that smack about "top 10 team"??

We all knew Vandy wouldnt stay there..

AtopTheHill06 writes:

Didn't Coach Keady say that Cuonzo Martin is the best leader I have ever coached. So I wonder if that comes up when Martin and Stallings talk. Awkward.

Anyway, Coach Keady needs to teach Stallings the sacred art of the comb-over. Man, that thing was sweet. I can still remember it flapping up and down during the Purdue games.

hueypilot writes:

Does anyone besides me who used to live in Nashville see a striking resemblance between Stallings and Sir Cecil Creep?

volboy81 writes:

Stallings is your typical Vandy-type. Thinks hes better than everyone else, but can't hold a candle to most!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to AtopTheHill06:

Didn't Coach Keady say that Cuonzo Martin is the best leader I have ever coached. So I wonder if that comes up when Martin and Stallings talk. Awkward.

Anyway, Coach Keady needs to teach Stallings the sacred art of the comb-over. Man, that thing was sweet. I can still remember it flapping up and down during the Purdue games.

Maybe back when "Coach was tough", he didn't allow any players to be leaders. It takes some coaches, and sometimes even the great ones, some time to realize that they can't control absolutely everything to do with their teams, and won't be able to do anything worthwhile unless the players buy in. Sooner or later, it occurs to them that players will tune them out if they only hear one voice all the time. But, no, I'm not all that fond of Stallings, either.

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