By Chris Dortch
What do John Calipari, Billy Donovan, Kevin Stallings, Mark Fox and Darrin Horn have in common? All coach in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. And before that, all of them coached at so-called mid-major schools.
The purpose of that little reminder is this: All those critical of Tennessee’s hiring of former Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin to replace the recently fired Bruce Pearl should give this one some time to percolate in their minds. There aren’t a lot of schools that can hire a successful coach away from an elite program. North Carolina did it eight years ago when Roy Williams left Kansas, and though he’d gone to school at UNC and coached there, he was still reluctant to leave.
Even at the SEC level, when athletic directors go about the task of hiring a new basketball coach, they might have millions of dollars to spend, great facilities, competitive conference, etc. to sell. But invariably, the hire doesn’t come from the ACC, the Big East or the Big Ten. It comes from the Missouri Valley or Conference USA or the Horizon League.
Despite media reports to the contrary, Tennessee didn’t think it was going to hire Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon or Villanova’s Jay Wright. Athletic director Mike Hamilton and his assistants knew they were going to have to do their homework, find a coach whose success at a slightly lower level of Division I could project to the SEC and make that hire as quickly as possible or risk a lengthy setback for a program that had, under Pearl’s watch, played in six consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
In Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee found what it believes is a rising star in the profession, a young coach who took over a team with five scholarship players at Missouri State and after an 11-win first season, won 24 the next year and 26 and the Missouri Valley regular-season championship this season.
“We believe success is a great indicator of future success,” Hamilton said. “Cuonzo played on a three-time state champion high school team. He played on great teams at Purdue, played professional basketball and then learned the coaching profession from Gene Keady and Matt Painter at Purdue, where he recruited some of the great kids that have led to Purdue’s recent success.
“At Missouri State, he didn’t win with somebody else’s players. He built the program. He went from the bottom of the league to winning the league in three years.”
Martin refers often to touchstone moments in his life that have helped shape him. He grew up in a single-parent home in rugged East St. Louis, Ill. He played for one of the game’s all-time great technicians and taskmasters in Keady. And, perhaps most important of all, he beat cancer. Check out some of Martin’s story here:
“Cuonzo Martin is a guy that, if you’re with him for any period of time at all, you’ll understand what his core values are,” Hamilton said. “You’ll see what has led him to the success he’s had so far. He’s got some things he has a very firm belief in that have helped him keep focus on his goals. I think he’ll be phenomenal in the living room with recruits and parents. I think he’ll be great with our current team.”
It’s the current team that Hamilton and his staff worked so quickly to secure and preserve. With Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson contemplating making themselves available for the NBA draft, with signees threatening to re-open their recruitment and others considering transfers, a coach had to be put in place as soon as possible.
“Our kids deserved to know what the leadership of the team was going to be as soon as was prudent and possible,” Hamilton said. “We wanted to hurry, but we also wanted to make sure we took the time to vet the candidates.
“Cuonzo was the first guy we interviewed. That’s not an easy place to be in the rotation. But we just kept coming back to him. I think our fan base appreciates toughness, hard work. A guy with Cuonzo’s background knows all about those things.”