Last week, Tennessee fired embattled men's head basketball coach Bruce Pearl. And just as Virginia Commonwealth and Kentucky were punching their respective tickets to the 2011 Final Four on Sunday evening, Tennessee announced that Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin had been hired as its new men's basketball coach (more here).
Cuonzo Martin is a native of East St. Louis, IL. He played on two IHSA championship basketball teams at East St. Louis Lincoln High School. Following high school, Martin went on to Purdue, where he played for legendary coach Gene Keady from 1990-1994. In the 1994 Sweet Sixteen, Martin set a Purdue record for three point shots made in a game when he completed eight three pointers against Kansas. After playing professionally in Italy and in the old Continental Basketball Association (R.I.P.) for a short time -- with a seven-game sojourn in the NBA sprinkled in along the way -- Martin returned to the United States and successfully battled cancer. With his health improved, he joined Keady's Purdue coaching staff in 2000. After eight years as an assistant at Purdue, Cuonzo Martin accepted the vacant Missouri State coaching position in 2008.
With his move to Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin becomes the fifth active former Gene Keady assistant to helm a high major college basketball program. Other active products of the Keady/Purdue coaching tree at high majors include Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, Bruce Weber at Illinois, Matt Painter at Purdue and Steve Lavin at St. John's.
Cuonzo Martin is a good choice for Tennessee. He's a young, up-and-coming coach who has been successful at the helm of one of the better Mid Major programs in college basketball. Missouri State won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season race this season, but were left out of the NCAA Tournament when they failed to win the MVC tournament. It's worth mentioning that in Martin's three seasons at Missouri State, none of his teams made it to the NCAA Tournament. That's notable, since Martin replaced Barry Hinson, who was fired by Missouri State after his teams made four consecutive N.I.T. appearances, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament -- even after finishing with back-to-back 22 win seasons and top 40 RPI ratings. Hinson's failure to lead the Bears program to the NCAA Tournament was widely believed to have been the deciding factor behind his ouster. Drive and Dish thought Martin was a good choice for Missouri State when he was hired. And there's no doubt that he's done well in his brief stay at that school. But it's hard to see how his stewardship of the Missouri State basketball program has been a significant improvement over that of Coach Hinson. Aside from having the aforementioned young, up-and-coming coach aura working for him, his on-court results appear remarkably similar to those of the man he replaced.
Nevertheless, congratulations are in order for Cuonzo Martin and for Tennessee. Tennessee has replaced a severely ethically-challenged coach with a new coach who's widely thought of as a good dude. But Coach Martin has his work cut out for him. On the positive side, Tennessee has good facilities, a great arena and outstanding talent on its roster. But after scandals incurred by Pearl and former football coach Lane Kiffin, Tennessee athletics will presumably be under the microscope of the NCAA (or at least they should be). And one would expect (or perhaps more accurately, hope) that some level of sanctions will be placed on the Tennessee athletic department -- and on the basketball program specifically -- by the enforcement wing of the NCAA. If NCAA sanctions come to pass, Martin will face an uphill climb at Tennessee. It's also worth bearing in mind that, as is the case at all SEC schools not named "Kentucky", football is king at Tennessee. Despite the Volunteers' recent hardwood success, men's basketball will probably always take a back seat to football (and even to women's basketball) in Knoxville. Remember, early in his tenure at Tennessee, Bruce Pearl was so
Along those lines, it's worth noting that in 1997, Kevin O'Neill resigned as basketball coach at Tennessee to take the same position at Northwestern. At the time, Northwestern was hardly an attractive job. But O'Neill was eager to bolt Tennessee for a Big Ten school -- apparently for ANY Big Ten school -- because men's basketball was little more than an afterthought at football-crazy Tennessee. The irascible O'Neill continually clashed with an athletic department that he characterized as disinclined to devote adequate resources to the men's basketball program. Tennessee replaced Kevin O'Neill with Jerry Green, who was replaced by Buzz Peterson, who was replaced by Bruce Pearl. Now Cuonzo Martin replaces Pearl.
Kevin O'Neill left Tennessee more than a decade ago, but it remains to be seen whether the difficulties he had getting adequate support for men's basketball from the Tennessee athletic department are entirely a thing of the past. Cuonzo Martin apparently thinks they are. He'll soon find out for sure.