Mississippi State's Rick Ray, Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin following similar paths

Coaches both were assistants at Purdue, now head coaches in SEC

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin talks with a referee during the game against Memphis at Thompson-Boling Arena, Friday, Jan. 4, 2012. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin talks with a referee during the game against Memphis at Thompson-Boling Arena, Friday, Jan. 4, 2012. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

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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.

Rick Ray.

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.

Cuonzo Martin.

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

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Comments » 24

VOLinATL writes:

CCM is a class guy....happy to have him as UT hoops coach.

1vavolfan writes:

The best shooter in this contest is from Knoxville but plays for MSU....Jalen Steele.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

Ray has the benefit of Stansbury's recruits, after the cupboard is empty we'll see what kind of coach /recruiter he is..As for CCM, his inability to find a PG (i know he claims he doesn't need one) shows a lack of recruiting and/or ineffective coaching..This will not be a gimme for the Vols.

born2ride writes:

MSU lost at home by 34 points to Alabama. This should be an easy win - but the way the Vols are struggling this could be a close game.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Ray has the benefit of Stansbury's recruits, after the cupboard is empty we'll see what kind of coach /recruiter he is..As for CCM, his inability to find a PG (i know he claims he doesn't need one) shows a lack of recruiting and/or ineffective coaching..This will not be a gimme for the Vols.

Pearl struggled for 6 years to find a reliable PG and post player. Apparently they don't grow on trees.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Ray has the benefit of Stansbury's recruits, after the cupboard is empty we'll see what kind of coach /recruiter he is..As for CCM, his inability to find a PG (i know he claims he doesn't need one) shows a lack of recruiting and/or ineffective coaching..This will not be a gimme for the Vols.

Bulldogs are down to like 8 scholarship players and most of them are soph. and freshman..They won their first 2 SEC games but we are miles ahead of them in talent

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to born2ride:

MSU lost at home by 34 points to Alabama. This should be an easy win - but the way the Vols are struggling this could be a close game.

I watched a lot of that game and Bama is going to continue to make noise in the SEC..MSU plays a 1-3-1 zone defense and Bama struggled against it in the first half..They opened the second half with 5 3 pointers and things unraveled from there..This should be a big game for Stokes but he will face Ware who is 270lbs and 6-9"

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

Pearl struggled for 6 years to find a reliable PG and post player. Apparently they don't grow on trees.

Tyler Smith and Bobby Maze were light-years ahead of Golden.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

I watched a lot of that game and Bama is going to continue to make noise in the SEC..MSU plays a 1-3-1 zone defense and Bama struggled against it in the first half..They opened the second half with 5 3 pointers and things unraveled from there..This should be a big game for Stokes but he will face Ware who is 270lbs and 6-9"

Totally agree, MSU will stay in the zone because UT can't score the ball against a zone. Unless McBee and Golden suddenly become Pistol Pete and Oscar Robertson, I see a grind game scoring in the 40's.

wigmeister writes:

Remember, Golden was a shooting guard that was made a point guard out of necessity. He is really a few steps too slow to play point. I think he would have been a very effective off guard.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Ray has the benefit of Stansbury's recruits, after the cupboard is empty we'll see what kind of coach /recruiter he is..As for CCM, his inability to find a PG (i know he claims he doesn't need one) shows a lack of recruiting and/or ineffective coaching..This will not be a gimme for the Vols.

I think the MSU cupboard was pretty bare when Ray got there. Apparently, Stansbury's last few years were pretty turbulent. Ray walked into a pretty bad situation, starting over for all practical purposes. This is a game the Vols just MUST win for a number of reasons. As you said, this game will not be a "gimme" for the Vols. No game will be until they get their confidence back. Although I am a Martin fan and of course a Vol fan, losing this one could be the beginning of the end for this season. I can and have made excuses for some of the previous losses, but the time for excuses is OVER.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to wigmeister:

Remember, Golden was a shooting guard that was made a point guard out of necessity. He is really a few steps too slow to play point. I think he would have been a very effective off guard.

Agreed, Golden is way too slow to play PG..But, if he's a SG he's not shooting like one either.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I think the MSU cupboard was pretty bare when Ray got there. Apparently, Stansbury's last few years were pretty turbulent. Ray walked into a pretty bad situation, starting over for all practical purposes. This is a game the Vols just MUST win for a number of reasons. As you said, this game will not be a "gimme" for the Vols. No game will be until they get their confidence back. Although I am a Martin fan and of course a Vol fan, losing this one could be the beginning of the end for this season. I can and have made excuses for some of the previous losses, but the time for excuses is OVER.

I have to say I agree with everything you posted..I will add that Ray must recruit like Stansbury or he'll be unemployed in 3 years.

jhayes0926#638474 writes:

I think that Golden is a "tweener". Too short for shooting guard, but not a true PG.

I am an avid Orange supporter for all the sports. I have to say I enjoyed Pearl's teams much better and if UT doesn't do something to increase the interest factor, the BB team will lose many more viewers. I will continue to support them and will watch as many games as possible, but I catch myself doing more channel surfing during the telecast, which I never did with the Pearl teams.

Hopefully things will turn around, but only if Stokes plays with more emotion and aggressiveness and the team plays a faster pace of ball. One mans opinion.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to jhayes0926#638474:

I think that Golden is a "tweener". Too short for shooting guard, but not a true PG.

I am an avid Orange supporter for all the sports. I have to say I enjoyed Pearl's teams much better and if UT doesn't do something to increase the interest factor, the BB team will lose many more viewers. I will continue to support them and will watch as many games as possible, but I catch myself doing more channel surfing during the telecast, which I never did with the Pearl teams.

Hopefully things will turn around, but only if Stokes plays with more emotion and aggressiveness and the team plays a faster pace of ball. One mans opinion.

If you want excitement then tune into the Vols for the last 7 of so minutes.

usnavyvolfan_on_duty writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Ray has the benefit of Stansbury's recruits, after the cupboard is empty we'll see what kind of coach /recruiter he is..As for CCM, his inability to find a PG (i know he claims he doesn't need one) shows a lack of recruiting and/or ineffective coaching..This will not be a gimme for the Vols.

Agreed. I don't think any of their remaining games will be gimmes, to be quite honest.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Tyler Smith and Bobby Maze were light-years ahead of Golden.

While true, I did say reliable. Smith was a reluctant PF and Maze would have benefited from playing 4 years for Pearl instead of 2.

Ah for the days of luxury when we had two PGs on the floor (White and Jenkins), so long ago.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

While true, I did say reliable. Smith was a reluctant PF and Maze would have benefited from playing 4 years for Pearl instead of 2.

Ah for the days of luxury when we had two PGs on the floor (White and Jenkins), so long ago.

Darden wasn't bad either, but Tony White was unbelievable at times.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I think the MSU cupboard was pretty bare when Ray got there. Apparently, Stansbury's last few years were pretty turbulent. Ray walked into a pretty bad situation, starting over for all practical purposes. This is a game the Vols just MUST win for a number of reasons. As you said, this game will not be a "gimme" for the Vols. No game will be until they get their confidence back. Although I am a Martin fan and of course a Vol fan, losing this one could be the beginning of the end for this season. I can and have made excuses for some of the previous losses, but the time for excuses is OVER.

Getting to be almost all the remaining games are "must". We really don't have anything on the resume to impress the NCAA committee and 12-6 in the SEC is bubble territory. With games against Florida, Kentucky and Missouri remaining...

8inarow writes:

Gators schooling Mizzou in TitleTown.

Basketvol writes:

in response to 8inarow:

Gators schooling Mizzou in TitleTown.

Yipee. February 26.

RememberWhen writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

Pearl struggled for 6 years to find a reliable PG and post player. Apparently they don't grow on trees.

Pearl also still managed to make the tourney every year....so far Martin is 0 for 2 with more talent to start with than Pearl had!

RememberWhen writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

While true, I did say reliable. Smith was a reluctant PF and Maze would have benefited from playing 4 years for Pearl instead of 2.

Ah for the days of luxury when we had two PGs on the floor (White and Jenkins), so long ago.

really? White and Jenkins were decent players but how many tourney wins did they get? Tyler and Bobby are now getting paid to play - Golden will never make a dime in this game.

RememberWhen writes:

Both of these coaches will have new addresses in 3 years...nice guys each...good coaches? not so much....

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