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Mr. Martin goes to Knoxville, makes impression

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Changing head basketball coaches is not like flipping a switch. There are a surprising number of moving parts that must click into place and details that take time to clean up.

For instance, there are still quite a few large photos hanging in Thompson-Boling Arena and adjacent Pratt Pavilion that show a smiling, animated Bruce Pearl in his signature orange blazer. After admitting to NCAA violations and suffering a 30-point drubbing in the NCAA tournament's first round, courtesy of the Michigan Wolverines, Pearl was dismissed from his post March 22. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton tapped Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin to take Pearl's place only five days later.

Cuonzo Martin's style is in stark contrast to successful and popular predecessor Bruce Pearl. (US Presswire)  
Cuonzo Martin's style is in stark contrast to successful and popular predecessor Bruce Pearl. (US Presswire)  
In many ways, Martin is a 180-degree about-face: he's a Gene Keady disciple who stresses defense. The former Purdue player and assistant coach is only 39 years old, 6-foot-5 and still looks like he could lace up a pair of kicks and give his players a good game. Martin comes across as taciturn, thoughtful and even-keeled in person, though his smile comes easily when a smile is warranted. His resume is short but squeaky-clean.

For his part, Martin doesn't begrudge the reminders of his predecessor, a man who many feel could easily run for elected office in East Tennessee and win in a landslide.

"The stage is set by the success that Coach Pearl has built," Martin said on a sunny day in mid-May when he had been on the job for less than two months. "Winning heals all issues. At the end of the day, graduating players, doing the right things is part of being successful."

Martin's office in Pratt Pavilion is the size of a decent studio apartment, with a comfortable group seating area right inside the open doorway. On one wall is a large flat-screen television usually tuned to a sports channel, hung so it can be seen from Martin's desk. Between the TV and the desk is a humble round conference table littered with papers. There's a private bathroom with shower attached. These are the trappings of success at the SEC level.

Of course, Martin would likely be the first to tell you that real success, defined by his terms, is a long ways off -- winning big is something he has committed himself to reach for, but he knows it will take time. He doesn't have to go very far to find a role model, however.

The glass trophy case that fronts the men's basketball offices is nice and all, but it suffers by its proximity to the women's hoops office, where coach Pat Summitt's eight national championship trophies have pride of place amongst many, many other honors. The lights in the case reflect off of polished metal and through crystal spheres. The overall effect recalls the piercing illumination of a lighthouse, beaming clear light onto dangerous shoals. Showing the way.

It's an apt image. Fog and rocks have put a few dings in UT's athletic fortunes recently. The legendary Vols football team is beginning Year Two under Derek Dooley after a disastrous season on and off the field under Lane Kiffin. Martin, like Dooley, is a low-key straight arrow, seemingly brought in to clean up after a glamorous party has ended. He also intends to win championships, make no mistake, but NCAA sanctions are looming like a buried reef that can only be seen at low tide. Martin would like to go ahead and get past that barrier, for good or ill.

"More than anything, I'd like to know from a recruiting standpoint. I think that's been one of the biggest questions for recruits. Not only the kids, but the parents and coaches want to know, 'Where are you with that, because we like what you're saying, but ...' I understand that. But once we find out we can move forward from that."

Charting a course

Like any coach, Cuonzo Martin has a good-sized whiteboard in his office, right next to the conference table. In the future, it will no doubt be filled with dry-erase X's and O's, but at this early stage of his regime, the board's contents are decidedly more basic. One column details simple terminology and tenets of Martin's basketball style. Below that is a row of player names, each written in clear, steady block letters. Right now, those names and that minimal outline of concepts that he can't put into practice yet reflect the state of the program. Taking stock and getting everybody -- especially the remaining Pearl recruited players -- on the same page one is the first order of business.

"They're probably thinking, 'If I don't like this coach, I'm out the door,' " Martin said. "So it's up to me to make these guys understand the accessibility, that I'm here and to give them a sense of calmness, let them know that everything's going to be OK. I think the biggest thing is to just be yourself."

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Martin did lose two players right out of the gate. Junior Scotty Hopson (17 points per game) and freshman Tobias Harris (15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds) entered the NBA Draft and opted to stay in. That leaves senior Cam Tatum (8.8 points) as the only Vol on next year's roster to average more than 20 minutes per game in 2010-11. Looking on the bright side, Martin feels that lack of experience will make it easier for the remaining players to buy in to his style of play.

"With so many guys who are unproven guys, so to speak, outside of Cam Tatum, it's going to be a tough schedule, but that's just part of it," he said. "You're talking about finding a way for them to step up and identify their roles. The first time we'll be able to work out with these guys is in the fall. We've got two things before we go to Maui, which is a great field. So hopefully, these guys will pick things up mentally as soon as possible. They'll find their way real soon once they get to Maui."

At this point, Martin breaks into a wide grin. This November's Maui Invitational field was set before he came aboard, and it's a bear. The young Volunteers will be plunged into a cauldron filled with blue-bloods (Duke, Kansas, UCLA), postseason contenders (Memphis, Georgetown) and the Michigan team that whomped UT in Charlotte in mid-March. It's important to note, however, that Martin's grin is not rueful, but almost wolfish. He's no dummy, he knows the trip to Hawaii will be brutal in many respects, but he clearly relishes the challenge.

"He's been real consistent since Day One," said Houston Fancher, the former Appalachian State head coach who served as video scouting coordinator under Pearl for three years and was promoted to Director of Basketball Operations by Martin. "There's different ways to do your job and Coach Pearl was obviously very successful about the way he went about it, and it's easy to see why Coach Martin will be, too. He's obviously a driven person. I've always been impressed by people who take their time to think about their answers before they turn around and shoot them out, and he's one of those guys."

Fancher also has been impressed by Martin's desire to learn before he really begins teaching.

"He's wanted to learn about Tennessee tradition, learn about our current roster, learn about the university, learn about the community. He didn't really come in and try to demand the kids walk his way. He wanted to get to know them first, give them a chance to learn about who he was and sort of meet them halfway on some things."

The approach seems to be effective. Track-suited Vols teammates saunter in and out of the basketball offices throughout the day, treating the place like a second home. Cam Tatum chills in a small side room, keeping an eye on the NBA Draft combine.

"He's just been real genuine and honest," Tatum said when asked about his new head coach. "He wants what's best for us and what's best for the team. What's important during this transition is for me to be a leader and make sure his message is getting through to the younger guys. We have to live in the gym and do whatever the coaches say."

After his freshman year, Tobias Harris joins Scotty Hopson in a leap to the NBA Draft. (Getty Images)  
After his freshman year, Tobias Harris joins Scotty Hopson in a leap to the NBA Draft. (Getty Images)  
That buy-in from the team's senior leader is crucial to setting the path Martin hopes to follow. The new Vols coach values four-year players as the backbone of any program, though he recognizes the success conference rival Kentucky has had with one-and-done superstars. He hopes superior talent and early departure don't always go hand-in-hand, however.

"The way we approach it, we like to have four-year guys, but we'll recruit guys who are one-and-done. That's fine. You recruit the best players available. Tobias was able to go after one year, and I'm all for it, I'm happy for him. A guy like that knows coming in that there's a potential chance that he'll leave after one year, and that's fine. But if you recruit like that, you have to have a backup plan."

Martin has admitted that, during his playing days at Purdue, he was not always the most dedicated student. When Martin was slowed by knee injuries before his junior season, legendary coach Gene Keady told him he had a choice to make -- would he show vision and get his degree, or would he hang his short-term hopes on fading NBA prospects?

Martin's mother had taught him the virtues of education, and that lesson paid off. As a result, Martin finds himself better able to understand the temptations his young charges face.

"You have to put them in the position to be successful, but you also have to be willing to let some things go and let guys make mistakes as they grow into those roles. That's how they gain the confidence to be successful," Martin said. "The things I've been through only helps me have patience in certain situations, and not just be so gung ho when something doesn't go so well and a young man makes a mistake. Supporting a young man, I have to be able to put myself in his shoes."

Martin's style, therefore, is disciplined but easygoing, if you can imagine such a thing. Discipline doesn't have to be harsh, it simply has to be consistent. As one member of the athletic department said, making a passing reference to the previous coaching regime: "When the head coach is twenty minutes late to practice, that attitude tends to trickle down."

A new home

Cuonzo Martin has immersed himself in his new community, in Knoxville and beyond, at full speed. He joined Pat Summitt, Derek Dooley and other UT coaches on the Big Orange Caravan, a fan-friendly road trip sponsored by the UT Alumni Association that travels the surrounding area throughout early May.

"He's already been involved in a lot of volunteer work, community service projects; that's very important to him," Fancher said. "While he doesn't go out and do a lot of talking, he does a lot of doing. He walks the walk instead of talks the talk."

Martin and members of the team and staff pitched in distributing supplies to aid tornado victims in Tennessee shortly after he arrived. Asked about his mission of mercy for residents of his new home base, Martin was humble.

"Those are the times in life when you're just helping out your fellow man," he said. "That's just instinct. It just so happened that I'm the head coach at Tennessee. If I wasn't head coach at Tennessee, I'd still get involved."

Still, the place won't really start to feel like home until the move is complete. Martin's office, while spacious, feels empty, because most of his belongings are still in Missouri. His personal Bible and two Tony Dungy titles are the only books lining the built-in shelves in his office right now.

Being without his own familiar stuff is hard enough, but Martin's three children, Joshua, Chase and Addison, remain in Missouri, finishing up their school year. Martin's wife, Roberta, was in Knoxville on May 19, ready to attend a reception with her husband that evening, then fly with him to Florida for another engagement.

"I have a great wife," Martin says. "She saw the real grind when I was an assistant coach: late night hours in the office, on the road four or five days straight in the month of July, so she understands that. You have to have the support at home in order to be really successful."

The evening's "Martin Madness" reception is held in a cavernous ballroom in the Knoxville Convention Center, which sits in the shadow of the golden sunsphere left behind by the 1982 World's Fair. The well-dressed duo of Cuonzo and Roberta Martin anchors one end of a long receiving line that snakes out into the lobby.

They are smiling, chatting and shaking hands as they accept various compliments and well-wishes offered by east Tennessee's most prominent citizens. They stay put until everyone in attendance gets a few minutes of face time, and despite the constructed nature of this grip-n-grin opportunity, each person who reaches the end of the line walks away with a satisfied, almost private smile on his or her face.

Houston Fancher pops a canapé in his mouth, chews and swallows, and then says, "I'd put the over/under on his prepared comments at about four minutes." He chuckles.

Sounds about right for a man who walks the walk more than he talks the talk.

When Martin is introduced, his remarks are, indeed, brief. If this were a dinner, the main course would have been enjoyed in companionable silence. But then Martin opens the floor to questions, and the audience gets a golden chance to wring some more words out of the man of the hour. He's honest and funny. The room fills with laughter when an attendee shouts out to ask if Martin will continue to schedule other Tennessee-based programs.

"Well, when I was at Missouri State, we fought all the time to schedule Missouri, play the big boys."

He pauses and beams that rare smile into the crowd.

"Now the shoe's on the other foot, so I have to live by my word."

The next question, about his theory of substitution, gets another laugh, when he says, "I like to go about eight or nine deep. If we have to go more than nine deep, we're either playing really well, or really badly."

By the end of the evening, everyone in attendance seems happy with Mike Hamilton's choice of leader for the Volunteer hoops squad. He isn't flashy, but he is genuine and often funny. He might not be able to sell ice to an Eskimo, but he could probably make a handshake deal on some fair trade seal blubber. You likely won't see him shirtless, painted orange, with a huge white "V" in the middle of his chest. Whether that's a good thing or not depends on what you thought of the previous guy.

Things will be different in Knoxville next season. What won't change are the expectations, at least not for Cuonzo Martin. He took the Tennessee job to win championships and educate young men, and he'll do both under the watchful eye of the legendary coach next door.

"I have Pat Summitt's son [rising sophomore Tyler Summitt] on the team, so I gotta do right by Pat!" he says, smiling again.

If doing right by Pat includes earning 1/8th as many national championship trophies as she can claim, we suspect that will be just fine and dandy with the Tennessee faithful.

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