Kevin Stallings on Cuonzo Martin at SEC Media Days
HOOVER, Ala. — Cuonzo Martin isn't the guy in the Tennessee basketball commercials.
Well, he is, but he's more.
In recent UT advertising campaigns, the Vols' second-year coach is portrayed a glaring, towering heavyweight fighter.
His dark eyes hide under the shade of a furrowed brow. His already baritone voice dips down to a Vader-like timbre. Shoulders back, his arms cross his broad chest.
That's the Cuonzo Martin painted for the public. He admits to playing it up.
Slowly, though, the other side of Martin is finding room to surface.
He's allowing it to.
At SEC basketball Media Day on Thursday, Martin offered more smiles than scowls. He was softer than the man that sat upon the same stage last year. He was more Cuonzo Martin than coach Cuonzo Martin.
"The difference is when you know what (team) you have, you're able to speak about it," he said. "Last year was just a matter of me trying to prove that, not necessarily that I belonged, but I felt it was like, 'Who is this guy?' "
As Martin spoke, an awaiting escalator rolled next to him. The media day gauntlet was complete and his orange tie was ready to be loosened.
Before talking about what a difference a year makes, Martin saw LSU coach Johnny Jones emerge from the firing squad.
After a long stint as a mid-major coach at North Texas, Jones is entering his first season with the Tigers.
This time, he's the new guy.
Martin grabbed Jones' hand and offered a welcoming hug.
He did the same with new Mississippi State coach Ricky Ray, a longtime friend and fellow staff member with Martin back in his days as an assistant at Purdue.
Ray is heading into his first head-coaching gig after spending the past two years as an assistant at Clemson.
Martin's advice to Ray was the creed of his first year and a half in Knoxville.
"You have to be who you are," Martin said, relaying the tidings passed to Ray. "You can't all the sudden change in this environment with all these cameras in your face. You can't change. Then, all the sudden, you don't have an identity, and two years later you don't know who you are.
"You have to be who you are."
It took more than few new moons, but Martin now gives glimpses of who he is in its entirety.
He admits to being guarded last season. Coming from Missouri State to Tennessee is no small step. There was reason to be leery.
Now comfortable, Martin still feels there are times when he relies too heavily on the glowering alter ego. It's a tough shell to crack.
Don't get it twisted, though. That second self is very much part of who he is. It's who the Vols see at practice, when the 41-year-old tends to prowl instead of walk.
"He was a scary dude last year when I got here, but I guess I know him a lot better now," sophomore Josh Richardson said Wednesday. "He's not as intimidating, but you still better do what he says."
Throughout Thursday's media day, fellow SEC coaches were quick to mention how the UT players feed off Martin's hard-line, uncompromising nature.
"He's a steadying kind of personality," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "He brings it. He has a toughness to him, a resolve, and his players are taking on that personality.
"That's what (players) do. They'll follow the coach. You need to teach leadership and I think he's done that."
Regardless of personas and dispositions, Martin will never pull the curtain back entirely. He said he'll still be "protective" 20 years from now.
But he's getting there.
"I'm not the guy to just open up if I don't know you," he concluded. "I think you have to be familiar with your surroundings and area and vibe, and then you open up."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball game. Follow him at twitter.com/BFQuinn