Cuonzo Martin on the play of Jarnell Stokes and playing in SEC
Shuffling through umpteen candidates last spring, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin landed on one curious name.
Stricklin was searching for a new basketball coach. There were the normal contenders: thriving mid-major coaches, budding assistant coaches from fruitful coaching trees, former Division I stars climbing the coaching ranks.
Ray was none of those.
The former NAIA player was an assistant at Clemson with zero head-coaching experience and little pedigree. Few outside college basketball's coaching circles had ever heard of him.
Yet Stricklin was intrigued. Clemson coach Brad Brownell vouched for Ray and compared him to another young, rising coach.
Ray and Martin shared assistant seats on coach Matt Painter's bench at Purdue for two seasons, 2007 and 2008.
Stricklin took the next obvious step in sifting through Ray's qualifications.
"I thought it would be worth it to reach out to Cuonzo and get his take," Stricklin told the News
Sentinel on Thursday.
"He talked about (Ray's) character, how he has a great feel for the game, his passion for the game of basketball and how well he relates to his players. Those are all the things you're looking to find out."
Stricklin saw the parallels drawn by Brownell between Martin and Ray.
"Cuonzo is a guy with a reputation of having a lot of substance and I think Rick Ray is the same kind of guy — that's what we were looking for," he said.
That's all it took.
Now, nearly nine months after Ray landed the Mississippi State job in April, he will face Martin — his friend and mentor — as dueling coaches in the SEC when the Bulldogs meet the Vols Saturday (TV: WVLT, 4 p.m.) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"It's a weird feeling," Ray said. "I can't describe going against him in any other way."
What's weird is how this story came full circle from West Lafayette, Ind., to Starkville, Miss., to Knoxville.
Grinding as assistants at Purdue, Martin and Ray looked up to one another.
"I knew he'd be a head coach," Martin said. "That was without question. It was just a matter of when."
"Cuonzo was clearly going to be a heck of a head coach," Ray said.
It happened first for Martin. He took the head gig at Missouri State in 2008 while Ray stayed at Purdue for two more seasons before going to Clemson. Location didn't deter friendship.
Then Martin, after completing his first year at Tennessee last season, received the call from Stricklin. His initial response was unique.
"I applauded the fact that he did his homework and found a guy that could help his program," Martin said.
Calling for a recommendation, the Mississippi State AD didn't expect to be congratulated.
"I found that very interesting coming from him," Stricklin said.
Ray and Martin's relationship hasn't dampened in SEC waters. They still talk, only the topics have changed.
There's an old adage in coaching: Pursuing a head-coach job is like a dog chasing a car. Once you catch it, then what?
What do you do?
Ray just caught the same car Martin grabbed a hold of four years ago.
Martin remembers his first year at Missouri State; remembers that 11-win season like a graphic movie you can't un-see. Everything was new. Questions were everywhere.
He calls that 2008-09 season, "The most humbling experience I've ever had in sports."
Now Ray is on the journey.
"When you're a first-year coach, your circle is so small and you don't have a lot of outlets — people to talk to when you're going through it," Martin said. "I just talk to him about it, 'Watch for this, here's a heads-up on that.' There's a lot of things you don't expect, then all the sudden they pop up."
Vision, work and balance are the key.
So says Martin.
Ray, though, relies on a more abstract lesson.
"He really taught me how to be a better person, as far as how I handle my business in coaching," he said. "It used to be all consuming with me. Cuonzo taught me how to put that aside and be able to go home and still be a parent, still be a husband — not let this whole game consume you."
After all, that's all Saturday is — a game, between friends.
"I don't relish having to compete against a guy who has meant so much to me and my career," Ray said.
Told of that response, Martin slowly shook his head side to side.
"Nah, it's only a ballgame," he said. "We're just gonna go compete."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn