I’m often asked why I started Midwest Sports Fans a little over three years ago, and why I spend so much time creating content for it and trying to grow it today.
There are a number of answers that would be partially right, but none would be more right than this: I started MSF so that when I feel passionately about something in the sports world, I have a forum where I can express it and promote it and know that at least a few people will read it.
Well tonight is one of those nights where I feel pretty strongly about something, and although I’m sure there are other, perhaps better ways I could spend a Sunday evening, I’m going to spend mine angrily pounding the keys of my laptop to defend a man whose alma mater is my sworn enemy.
Tonight, the Tennessee Volunteers announced the hiring of Cuonzo Martin (Purdue, ’95) as their new head coach. He will replace the disgraced Bruce Pearl, who did a tremendous job in building the Vols’ program but who could not stay in the line with NCAA rules.
It is a brilliant, inspired, forward-thinking hire by Tennessee.
Cuonzo Martin will succeed. He succeeds at everything he does, everywhere he goes. He’s a winner. And not in the cliched Charlie Sheen way that we now throw that term around. Cuonzo Martin is a winner in the truest sense of the word.
And now he’s going to a fan base that apparently doesn’t want him – just read the comments here. That’s a damn shame.
First things first. Everyone reading this needs to understand something, and it is not insignificant: I am a dyed-in-the-wool Indiana fan and IU grad who would usually rather be waterboarded than give credit or praise to anything having to do with Purdue. I’ve come around to respecting Purdue a bit more recently, but my track record of gold and black venom speaks for itself.
Yet, in my 20+ years as a focused, attentive, knowledgeable, passionate fan of Big 10 basketball, there are very few players I have ever respected more than Cuonzo Martin.
‘Zo started out at Purdue as a freshman playing alongside Glenn Robinson during the 1991-92 season. He averaged 5.8 points per game in 20.8 minutes and was 0-1 from downtown. As a sophomore, Martin played 33 minutes per game and upped his points per page to 11.9 but still went 0% from downtown (0-6).
But as a junior and a senior, called on to fill the void left by the Big Dog, Cuonzo Martin stepped up and became one the best, most versatile, most clutch players in the Big Ten over those two years. He scored 16. 3 points as a junior, 18.4 points as a senior, and made a combined 179 of 390 3-point attempts, or 45.9%.
Update: thanks to @jerees for straightening me out. I was a season ticket holder then, I should have remembered!
Cuonzo’s freshman year, Glenn Robinson was academically ineligible. Thus, Martin played with the Big Dog his sophomore and junior year, and then took over as a senior.
And he did all of this on bad knees and in the most demanding (at the time) conference in America. Hmm, I wonder if that kind of experience might be invaluable for a coach in relating to players as they go through their 3-4 years of college development. From afterthought to Big Ten MVP; seems like Cuonzo can pretty much relate to everyone on the roster.
That’s just a small tip in the impressive iceberg that is the Cuonzo Martin story. But I’ll pause now to relay a few tweets from Clay Travis, who follows Tennessee sports as closely as anyone I’m aware of, and whose opinion I usually respect. Tonight? Not so much.
So Tennessee fired Bruce Pearl to hire Cuonzo Martin. That really happened. Biggest downgrade in college hiring since? Send nominations.
Both of these tweets came within an hour of the Martin hire being announced. The second one is Travis retweeting Bruce Pearl’s son, and I think we can all understand why Pearl’s son would feel like criticizing the hire.
But from Travis, who I’ve always found to be rational, reasonable, and well-informed, I expected a little more than the shock-jock, knee-jerk, myopic reaction that he’s provided tonight. Let those ignorant tweets simmer as we get back to talking about ‘Zo, the real star of the show in this post.
This is not my first time blogging about Cuonzo Martin. I wrote about him in December of 2009. Here is the 4th paragraph of said article:
Cuonzo Martin is now in his second season as the head coach of the Missouri State Bears and already has them undefeated and ranked in the top 25.
For longtime Big Ten basketball fans, this really should not be a surprise.
The purpose of my article, however, was not to laud Martin for how good of a job he’d done in a short time as Missouri State’s head coach. It also wasn’t to laud him for his impressive college career. The purpose was to echo the sentiments of an article by Kansas City Star writer Sam Mellinger, who penned a terrific profile of Martin’s tough upbringing on St. Louis’ east side as well as his debilitating and near-fatal fight with cancer.
Unfortunately, newspapers don’t know their elbows from their assholes when it comes to the Internet, so the link to the article is no longer live; but here is what I excerpted from it, which will give you at least a flavor of the Martin story:
Cuonzo Martin bites a whistle in his mouth and holds a yellow apple in his hand as he stares down the opportunity of his professional life, right here in front of him. He is pacing, stalking, his feet never sticking to the hardwood basketball court at Missouri State more than a half-second or so.
He shouldn’t be here. Not statistically, not medically, and not realistically. Guys who see what he’s seen and lived what he’s lived just don’t become head coach of one of biggest surprise teams in Division I basketball.
But here he is anyway, spreading his personal gospel of motion offense and nasty defense and especially about being tough. That last point is a way of life for Martin. His Bears, 9-0 and No. 23 in the RPI, are catching on quicker than anybody expected.
“I’m from East St. Louis,” he says. “We scratch. We fight. We make it work.”
Cuonzo Martin doesn’t like to say too much about the things he saw as a kid. Through conversations with family and friends, the sad cliché of growing up in the projects emerges. Gangs. Drugs. Prostitution. Guns.
“We did some things that other people probably got in trouble for,” says Marco Harris, Martin’s best friend growing up. “We just didn’t get caught. I think God had a different plan.”
Martin likes to say that people in his hometown look out for those trying to make good. It’s a rough place, and maybe this is a strange dynamic, but he thinks his hometown protected him, helping him make it.
Martin carried his baby boy as he walked through the door of his Indianapolis home and collapsed. He remembers stretching his arms out to drop the boy on the couch, saving the impact. His wife rushed him to the hospital, where they ran tests and X-rays. He’ll never forget the doctor’s voice.
“I don’t know if you’re going to live or die,” he said. “This is very serious.”
Thankfully, Cuonzo Martin did live, but not without having to fight non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, as this article from MissouriStateBears.com recounts:
Cuonzo Martin lost weight at an alarming rate while he was playing professionally in Italy. He had trouble breathing and after several exams he was told that he had bronchitis and was required to return home immediately.
Upon his return Martin met with a US doctor. The doctor in a business-like, matter of fact tone told Martin that he had cancer, “life threatening cancer.” At 26 years old and in the prime of his life, Cuonzo Martin who grew up in the middle of the societal cancers of East St. Louis now faced Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The tumor was located between his heart and lungs and it was an aggressive and growing mass.
He was treated with the most advanced and most volatile treatments available at that time. The chemotherapy left him near death. He could barely move and his will to live was reduced to one prayer, “God, please let me live long enough to see my 4 month old son turn 18 years old.”
That was the prayer of a dying man who had only one option, trust that God might listen and give him one last chance to make a difference for his son, Joshua. God listened and today just before practice I watched Cuonzo Martin with emotion filled eyes and slightly trembling hands describe the horror he once faced one day at a time.
Tennessee fans, and Clay Travis, in the coming weeks and months when you wonder why Cuonzo Martin has such a nuanced, refreshing, and positive outlook on life, remember this passage. Let’s just say that he can truly appreciate every opportunity he is given because for ‘Zo every day truly is an opportunity that at one time he did not think he’d have.
So when I see retweets like this from Travis and other Tennessee fans, you’ll forgive me if I think it’s a little ridiculous and a lot short-sighted:
@Josh_Ward What a joke this whole process has been.
Why rush hire in one week? Are coaches with one career NIT win really that hot of commodities?
Here’s the thing: Travis isn’t entirely off base when he wonders if Martin is really that hot of a commodity. And this tweet, where he describes Martin as a “bargain basement hire” isn’t entirely off base either.
Martin is something of a “bargain basement” hire when you compare him to Flavor of the Month – and, granted, NCAA Tournament proven – coaches like Shaka Smart of VCU, who Travis earlier in the day implored Tennessee to go after. (As for Brad Stevens…ha! Like he’d even think about a job at an unethical football school.)
So while I’ll grant that Travis makes some points in Tennessee perhaps rushing the process and perhaps going off the radar with its choice, neither means that they didn’t get the best man for the job.
And I suppose this – some 1600 words into the post – is where I should talk about Cuonzo Martin the coach - even though he always has been and always will be 10x better and more valuable to a program as a man than he is as a coach.
|2009–2010||Missouri State||24–12||8–10||7th||CIT Champions|
|2010–2011||Missouri State||26–9||15–3||1st||NIT 2nd Round|
In his first year, the Bears obviously struggled to a 10th place finish; but look at the improvement. They won 24 games his second season and won the CIT championship. This year, they were the regular season champions of one of the 10-12 best basketball conferences in America, the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears unfortunately stumbled in their conference tournament and were not deemed worthy of a bid by the Selection Committee, though I know more than a few smart basketball people who thought they deserved a look.
Combine Martin’s early success as a head coach with his pedigree – he learned under Gene Keady and Matt Painter, both of whom are better coaches than the departing Bruce Pearl that Vol fans seem to be already missing – and I ask you: what is there not to like or feel good about?
Oh, and as to Clay Travis’ tweet above about how Tennessee could be so foolish as to hire a coach with “one career NIT win”…
- Guess how many NCAA Tournaments Bob Knight went to in six years at his first job, Army, before he was hired at Indiana: none. (He went to the NIT four times, never reaching the finals)
- Guess how many NCAA Tournament appearances Mike Krzyzewksi had at Army, his first job, before being hired at Duke: none. Guess how many NIT wins Coach K had in his five years at Army: none.
Now, you may say that it’s unfair to compare Cuonzo Martin to two of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. I say why?
No one looks back and questions their hiring, despite neither doing a whole hell of a lot at their first jobs. And you could argue that Martin has actually done more in his first job than either Knight or Krzyzewski did in theirs.
Cuonzo Martin at Missouri State, unlike Knight or Coach K at their first gigs, has a led a team to both a conference regular season championship and a post-season championship (CIT) in three years on the job. He’s done all of this mostly by changing attitudes and “coaching ‘em up” as we say; he hasn’t even had his own recruiting class go all the way through his program. And this is the guy that recruited JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore to Purdue – ever heard of them? So he can recruit too.
Update: Many of the commenters have mentioned how great Cuonzo Martin’s speech was when he received the MVC Coach of the Year. And it is. Here it is for those who have seen it:
And in case you needed one more bit of evidence that Cuonzo Martin is a good hire, how about the fact that the people who know ‘Zo best believe in him wholeheartedly. Consider this article about the uncertain future of Matt Painter from Travis over at Hammer and Rails tonight:
In this poker game I was like many in thinking that our safety blanket was Cuonzo Martin, another former player and assistant who just completed a successful season at Missouri State. It was assumed that he would take over if Painter departed. Of course, that was before the news broke that Martin was headed to Tennessee.
In that past 24 hours I have spoken with Bryan Gaskins, my editor at the Kokomo Tribune and a fellow Purdue alum. Last night he told me he had a bad feeling about the Painter situation, but that is far from anything definite. Seconds ago I receive and e-mail from him with the headline “WE’RE SCREWED” announcing that Martin was hired.
To me, this was a key piece taken off the table because everyone knew Martin was going to be the top target if Painter left.
Notice how easily Travis discusses Cuonzo as the supposed heir apparent to Painter, should Painter ever leave West Lafayette? Well I have news for you Tennessee fans: Purdue is at least 2X as good a job as Tennessee is. The Boilermakers, as I’ve detailed before, have perhaps the most underrated basketball program in America, which includes the most Big 10 titles of any school and a winning record against every Big 10 team. If Purdue was assuming Cuonzo as next in line for the throne – and believe me, Travis was not alone in this thought – then why the hell is he so objectionable for a school like Tennessee, that is and always will be football-first and less attractive a job than Purdue?
Here is the truth of the matter: Tennessee was reaching for the moon (Stevens), got a star (Cuonzo Martin), and they smartly decided that was good enough. You wonder why they acted so quickly, Clay Travis et al? Because if there is any truth to the Matt Painter-to-Missouri rumors, Purdue would snatch Cuonzo Martin up so fast it would make your head spin. And Purdue fans, who are both more intelligent and passionate basketball fans than Vols fans, would have been jumping for joy at the hire despite their disappointment over Painter leaving.
As it stands, I highly doubt Painter goes anywhere, and Tennessee just lucked into a smart, hungry, classy, tough young coach who can save its ass and rebuild its program in the wake of Bruce Pearl’s ignominious demise. Cuonzo Martin will succeed at Tennessee. He may not blow the doors off next year as he deals with the Pearl transition, but he’ll have Tennessee competing for SEC championships by his third year, just as he did at Missouri State.
But here’s the rub Tennessee: you treat your basketball job like it’s a destination – like Brad Stevens would leave Butler to run to Knoxville, or like Cuonzo Martin is somehow lucky you offered him a job.
Tennessee isn’t even on Brad Stevens’ radar, and you’re only getting a respected young coach like Cuonzo Martin because you acted quickly and didn’t wait around like the Clay Travises of the world wanted you too.
My prediction is that in 5-6 years, ‘Zo will have used his success in Knoxville as a stepping stone to a better job, probably in the Big Ten.
Sure, that might not happen. It’s no guarantee. Tennessee certainly has the money to keep top coaches if they want to, and the SEC is a premier conference that offers plenty of benefits to an ambitious coach like Martin.
But the point remains: Cuonzo Martin is not the lucky one tonight; Tennessee basketball is. Clearly – from the tweets and comments and message boards posts – it’s going to take a little while for that to sink in, but eventually it will. And then you’ll know why so many people from the Midwest applauded this hire from the moment it was announced.
Cuonzo Martin has already proven himself to be a very good young coach, but more importantly he’s proven himself to be an ever better man and an impeccable example for every player who will play for him at Tennessee. For an athletic department that has often lost its way over the last decade in choosing to cut corners and compromise ethics in the name of winning, you should be proud to hire a man who has never had nor taken the easy way out on his difficult, bumpy, cancerous road to success.
Tennessee fans, this may come as a shock to your elitist sensibilities, but you have proven tonight that you don’t deserve Cuonzo Martin. The least you could do is not wait until he’s winning to appreciate him.
Update: In the minutes after I posted this, the following tweet came in from @rcjakesvoles:
I am posting it because I want Tennessee fans to know that I have zero agenda here. I based my interpretation of the Tennessee fan reaction on the comments section of every article I read right after Zo’s hiring was announced, Clay Travis’ Twitter feed, and my own Twitter feed. If there are dissenting opinions of people who like the Cuonzo hiring, please post in the comment section below. And people who think I’m way off base with the post above, comment too.
We’re all about discussion here at MSF. Let’s have one.
Update: I just received an email from a thoughtful Vols fan named Ryan, and I’d like to relay a portion of it here – because it contains a valid criticism of how I handled writing this article.
After expressing positivity at the Martin hiring, here is what the emailer said:
I do take issue with the end of your story. For some reason, you choose to think that Clay Travis represents all Vol fans. Vol fans are just like any other fans of any program. When you replace someone who most people think is a top 15 coach, of course there’s going to be people that bitch about any coach that comes in. Bruce was beloved in Knoxville. He made his own bed in this situation, but that’s another subject.
But you wrote:
“Tennessee fans, this may come as a shock to your elitist sensibilities, but you have proven tonight that you don’t deserve Cuonzo Martin.”
After reading such a well written article, it’s kind of surprising that you would pop something like that in there. What kind of research did you do to come to that conclusion? Where did you read all of the negative rhetoric? Is it because you read something that Clay Travis wrote? Well then, by all means go ahead and judge a fanbase by one guy.
From what I’ve seen tonight, most people had similar reactions. And that was “Who?”, followed by “what the hell?”, followed by “this could be pretty good” after getting info about Martin. But again, please judge a fanbase by one or two people.
Otherwise, it was a great article. I really look forward to seeing Martin come in and stamp his style on the program. Despite what many people think, UT was not a rogue program. We had a coach that stupidly decided to lie about a contact with juniors. But it is what it is. That is done and it’s on to Martin. We welcome him as coach and hope he’s able to build on what Bruce started.
Ryan, you’re right. In coming passionately to Cuonzo Martin’s defense I generalized the Tennessee basketball fanbase based on an overwhelming number of comments and tweets I saw. I was so excited to sit down and write in opposition of these opinions that I didn’t take quite enough time to seek out the other side of Vol Nation.
With that said, our goal here at MSF is always to start conversations, not end them. And I’m very glad that so many people have commented to take me to task for generalizing the Tennessee fan opinion on the Martin hire. I’m also glad that so many seem in favor of it or at least willing to give Martin a fair shot.
I was wrong to generalize, and I apologize for that, though in the end I wouldn’t change the article because it is honest and induced a worthwhile conversation between inquiring minds. That’s my goal as a blogger and we achieved it tonight. And we’ll continue to have an open, lively discourse in the comment section.
Update: Final note for the evening before I head off to bed…I responded to every comment received before around midnight Central Time tonight. Then I just looked, and we had about 10 more. I’m sorry if I can respond to all comments tonight/tomorrow/in the future. If you look at my other responses, and at the updates to the this post, I think that you’ll see I’ve taken the words to Tennesssee fans to heart and that I appreciate them. I wish I didn’t have to sleep/work…but alas, I am just a blogger and hence my real world begins again on Monday.
Sincerely though: thank you to everyone who visited, read, commented, tweeted, and posted in message boards about this column. Any bit of attention is always appreciated here at MSF, and we’ve been happy to welcome Tennessee fans into our water cooler discussion tonight.
Hopefully you’ve all found it as enlightening as I have.
Update: I promise I’ll stop adding updates at some point, but I am getting so many thoughtful emails from Tennessee fans that make great points and provide a more well-rounded view of this story than what my initial post provided. Here is one that, I think, does a nice job of rationalizing the initial negative knee-jerk reaction from Vol fans:
I would like to defend the Tennessee fan base for reacting so negatively to the news.
The typical Tennessee fan had not done much research, and most of them had never even heard of Cuonzo Martin until last night. This was made worse by the fact that names like Jamie Dixon, Brad Stevens and Jay Wright had been floated by Knoxville’s sports media as possible candidates for the job. Any Vol fan who reads your article on Martin, I’m certain, would change their tune toward the new coach.
However, you cannot blame them for being disappointed by Martin when earlier in the week the press had implied they might be getting Jamie Dixon. I believe and certainly hope you are right, and that within three years Martin will have Knoxville saying, “Bruce who?” Until then, let’s have fun watching the Cuonzo work.
Well said. And I’ve seen a huge shift in the tone of the reaction just in the last 12 hours, which is great to see.