Mizzou and Cuonzo Martin: They Needed Each Other In a Mutual Rebuilding Project

I’ll have much more to say and write about this in the days and weeks ahead, but here are a few instant-reaction opinions on Mizzou’s choice of Cuonzo Martin to lead a new era of men’s basketball in CoMo:

Bernie Miklasz

1. Jim Sterk gets his man. You may love the hire. You may hate the hire. You could be ambivalent about the hire. But Sterk, the MU athletics director, didn’t fool around. As Gabe DeArmond of PowerMizzou and others suggested in the early stages of the coaching search Sterk focused on Martin from the start. Sterk was said to be impressed by the number of Martin endorsements that came from friends and associates in the business. Sterk undoubtedly explored other coaching candidates — as he should have — but followed his instincts here.

Sterk didn’t fool around, waste time. If Tom Crean or Gregg Marshall weren’t really in play for this job, if they looked down on Mizzou, then you go with with someone who believes in your place. And you don’t let Martin go elsewhere while you’re procrastinating.

Missouri certainly answered one question: the university was willing to make a hefty financial commitment to bring Martin to Columbia. And Missouri may have outbid Illinois to win the first Braggin’ Rights contest in years.

Now, you can get all caught up in speculation, gossip or intrigue … was Martin the first choice? I don’t know. But I don’t think Martin was ever a down-list candidate for this gig. He was at the top of the list, or near the top of the list. I don’t think Sterk had to “settle” for Martin. This wasn’t a Frank Haith scenario.

2. If you’re a Mizzou fan, it’s time to get back on board. Maybe you’re pouting because you wanted a bigger name, or someone other than Martin. Perhaps you feel let down because you got your hopes up on a Crean-Mizzou match, or that Sterk would hit a half-court shot at the buzzer by coaxing Marshall to Boone County. But let’s have a reality check here. Mizzou’s long-term basketball potential is strong. The program can thrive. All of the components are in place.

And let’s not ignore a factor that many people probably want to avoid: Martin’s race. I don’t believe Martin was hired simply because he’s African American, but for a university emerging from a period of extensive and damaging racial turmoil on campus, Martin can do a lot of good, and in many ways. It’s not Martin’s job to heal and close racial divide at Mizzou, but as an African American hired for a high-profile job in a position of authority, Martin is in position to help the cause.

But in the short term, there are other issues. There are concerns over Mizzou’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), which could make Mizzou hoops ineligible for postseason play. There’s potential NCAA trouble, with the organization investigating accusations of a former tutor who claims she did class work, and took tests, for players. And Mizzou is winding down an NCAA probation caused by the misdeeds of Haith and staff.

The new coach faces a tear-down phase after three sad and hideous seasons under Kim Anderson, who went 27-68 overall, and 8-46 in the SEC. I think it’s realistic to be realistic about MU’s appeal. Any coach that accepted this job is gambling on MU’s long-range upside. Conversely, any coach that wasn’t keen on the job had reasons to be wary or at least unwilling to rehab a sagging, buckling program. Martin has no fear. He’s in. That’s who you want. Coaching wish lists are mostly just that: a fantasy.

3.  Martin is an excellent recruiter. And the East St. Louis native is returning to his home turf, with established recruiting roots, and attracting good players to MU shouldn’t be an issue. This isn’t to say that Cuonzo will secure commitments from every top recruit in the area, but he’ll get his share. Swinging and whiffing on local recruits has been a horrendous problem for Mizzou coaches … a problem that’s lasted way too long. Well, this is a new day.

4. Martin seemingly has a swell chance to make an instant, profound impact by landing the nation’s top recruit, Michael Porter Jr. (And Porter’s younger brother, Jontay Porter.) And You’ll be reading more about that in the coming days, but here’s a primer from Dave Matter of the Post-Dispatch. And the Chicago Tribune speculated that Illinois fans are nervous about keeping five-start recruit Jeremiah Tilmon from East St. Louis. Martin is a revered figure on the East Side. In a related note, St. Louis U. coach Travis Ford has done an amazing job of recruiting locally, but that could change with Martin signing on at Mizzou.

5. I got to know Martin (a little) during his time as the coach at Missouri State, and I’m familiar with his back story. His formative years in East St. Louis, growing up in the “The Hole” and passing the kind of survival test that most of us will never be able to comprehend … His starring on the famous East St. Louis Lincoln HS team with LaPhonso Ellis  blowing out a knee, an injury that could have derailed him in high school  … His career as an intelligent, honest, tenacious player for the dogged Gene Keady at Purdue. And the biggest crisis and test of all: at age 26, Martin had his pro career terminated by a life-threatening blast of cancer … and he beat it. The non Hodgkins lymphoma and wicked rounds of treatment left Martin so weakened, he didn’t have the physical strength to lift his toddler son. But Martin prevailed. He won. This is a man of character and integrity. One of the finest men you’ll ever find in a profession that’s coated with plenty of slime. And no one will outwork Cuonzo Martin. Ever.

If you want to learn more about Martin’s personal story, and his immense character, then watch this feature.

6. Martin has a lot to prove. His teams at Missouri State, Tennessee and California were known for playing tough defense — Martin’s DNA — but his motion offense wasn’t smooth or particularly entertaining. But the greatest and fiercest coach in Mizzou history, the legendary Norm Stewart, built his program on defense … nasty, edgy, annoying, frustrating defense. It’s a helluva foundation for a reconstruction project.

7. Martin’s reputation has taken a hit because of his job hopping. The other question that’s being circulated: why has Martin moved around so much? Next season will be Martin’s 10th season of coaching at this level, and this is his fourth job. Why has he moved around so much? If you look closely at the circumstances at each stop the answer becomes clearer. Missouri State was a stepping stone job … Martin was treated terribly at Tennessee, and his own players encouraged to leave … was the California really a fit for Martin or just a convenient opportunity to get away from the haters at Tennessee? … And now the move to Mizzou, which invited Martin to return to his home base, around 130 miles from his birthplace. And the Cal experience included rigid academic standards and looming budget cuts.

Still, I understand why the question is raised. Martin’s rep has been dinged by the frequent movement. Wrote Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News: “And so it is with some hesitation — because I really like Martin and think he has potential — that I say right now he’s better at getting jobs than doing them.”

Fair or unfair, that’s the perception. Mizzou is taking a risk with Martin … just as Martin is taking a risk with Mizzou.

8. Dissidents will point to holes in Martin’s record. Nine seasons of coaching, only two NCAA Tournaments. A seven-year contract for $21 million is a lot of jack for a .222 batting average. Martin led Tennessee to one NCAA Tournament (a Sweet 16 run) in three seasons. He took Cal to one NCAA Tournament in three seasons. And while Martin did very good work at Missouri State — picking up the pieces to go 50-21 in his final two seasons and winning a regular-season MVC championship — he didn’t get the Bears to an NCAA Tournament. If Martin had all of these wonderful recruits, and multiple players picked in the NBA Draft, then why didn’t he attain a higher level of success?

Fair enough. But some context is absolutely necessary:

9. Missouri State was a straight-up rebuild. Martin’s three seasons (ending in 2011) produced a .598 winning percentage that ranks third in program history behind Charlie Spoonhour and Steve Alford. As mentioned earlier, Martin won 50 games in his final two seasons. In 2010-11 he seized the program’s first regular-season title after a long drought. Over his final two seasons, Martin’s MVC record at Missouri State (23-13) was comparable to Gregg Marshall’s conference record (26-10) at Wichita State.

10. Tennessee was roiling … a hot mess … after coach Bruce Pearl got whacked by the NCAA for rules violations. Volunteers fans never stopped pining for Pearl. They never really gave Martin a fair shot. Martin’s first Tennessee team (2011-2012) was picked by one SEC web site to finish 10th in a 12-team conference. Another site tabbed the Volunteers as the eighth-place team preseason. But Tennessee finished in a second-place tie with a 10-6 SEC record. Martin’s third Tennessee team went to the NCAA Tournament and reached the round of 16. And during Martin’s three seasons in Knoxville, only John Calipari (Kentucky) and Billy Donovan (Florida) won more conference games. Kentucky had 32 wins, Florida 31 wins, and Tennessee had 29. I don’t see this is some sort of underachieving failure — especially considering the hostile working environment.

If you want the skinny on Martin and Tennessee, read this piece by Gary Parrish of CBS Sports.

11. Martin’s overall stay at California was disappointing, but remember that he went there (2014-2015) in a lull period, taking control of a Cal program that had slumped a bit in coach Mike Montgomery’s final season. But Martin got Cal to the NCAA Tournament in his second season, and the Bears were a bubble team that just missed out on a NCAA berth this season. (Relegated to the NIT instead.) Martin’s overall record, 62-39, was solid enough. His 44-24 record in his final two seasons in Berkley was fine.

No, Martin wasn’t as good as Montgomery — but that’s hardly something to be ashamed of. When Montgomery took over at Cal, he’d already coached 26 seasons and had led Stanford to a ton of success including a Final Four. At the time Martin became California’s boss, he’d only been a head coach for six seasons. As it turned out, Martin’s three-season winning percentage at Cal (.614) wasn’t that far off from Montgomery’s six-season winning percentage (.640) there.

12. Finally, a key point to consider: Martin is still growing as a coach. It will help him to settle down, plant his flag and make it clear that he can be counted on for stability and longevity by staying in a job for more than three years. Martin needs to truly build a program, and stick with it, develop continuity, give it time to blossom. Martin has found a landing spot that offers the best coaching match of his career. This is his base. base. He’s returning to the Midwest, close to East St. Louis, to raise a collapsed program. He’s back in his hot recruiting zone and should have the talent flowing into Mizzou Arena. This is where Martin can erase the cynicism over his coaching performance — and prove himself once and for all.

Mizzou needed Martin, and he needed Mizzou. This is a career opportunity, a chance for Martin to stay and prosper and make this place his coaching home. This is where — hopefully — Martin will realize his full potential as a coach and leader. And he can do this by transforming enigmatic Mizzou into the program it should be.

If you buy into the narrative that Mizzou is an underachieving program, and that Martin is an underachieving coach, then look at it this way: Martin and Mizzou are in position to make a lot of people shut up. Theirs is a mutual rebuilding project.

Thanks for reading …


Audio: The Fast Lane Reacts as Cuonzo Martin to Mizzou News Breaks