March 28, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
KNOXVILLE -- Cuonzo Martin's first public comments as Tennessee's new basketball coach were directed to the person sitting on the front row wearing orange: His wife.
After being officially introduced as the Vols' 18th head coach to a room packed with media and Tennessee supporters, Martin with his deep and calm voice thanked everyone for the applause and looked directly at his wife, Roberta, sitting with their children Joshua, Chase and Addison, and thanked her.
"She's basically my right hand," Martin said. "She's everything to me, so I want to acknowledge her. Roberta Martin."
Monday's introduction of Martin was indeed a family affair. He pointed to the patriarchs of the Tennessee family: Mears, King, Grunfeld and Ellis, along with Ward, Manning and Summitt. Then he pointed to the current family, sitting beside Roberta and in the row behind her: the players he'll be coaching.
He met them only Sunday night at 11:30 in a brief but direct introduction. He thanked them for being there so late because they didn't have to attend. Theoretically, at least.
"I told those guys I appreciated the fact that they were there at 11:30 at night," Martin said. "They didn't have to be there ... which, they did have to be there."
About 15 hours later, he called them family. He spoke of how he wants them to return decades from now because, well, they'll still be family.
While the players just want to play, and Martin acknowledged that, they still had a great appreciation for his tone in that first meeting.
"He just said he wants the best out of the players," said Cameron Tatum, who will be a senior next season. "He didn't necessarily say as a player, but as a person, as a human being on and off the court. You better show up to class on time. You better show up to basketball practice on time. Everything correlates with each other. If you're going to be a good person off the floor, you've got to be a great person on the floor as well. Just trying to get the best out of you as a person - that's what his main message was, and everything else will carry itself."
Rising senior Scotty Hopson said he was impressed with Martin's credentials on and off the court. Martin has been in Hopson's shoes before, with talent to play at another level and weighing options for the future. Hopson said he would indeed lean on the new coach for guidance, but also was glad to see how the coach laid out his plans for the team.
"He said a lot about what we're going to do as a team, how we're going to be as a unit, the style of play we're going to play, and the fact that we are going to play defense," Hopson said. "We're going to try to be the best team we can be."
Martin's teams have a history of that.
As a player, he helped Purdue to two Big Ten championships. As a head coach, he transformed Missouri State's program from an 11-20 squad his first season to a 26-9 Missouri Valley Conference championship team this past season. He comes from the Gene Keady line of coaches, and parlayed his mentor's advice into a highly successful stint at Missouri State. When he arrived, the team had five scholarship players. He left as the conference coach of the year.
As much as fans and supporters rely on statistics, and understandably so, Martin introduced himself as a family man on Monday.
Martin praised former Purdue teammate Glenn Robinson and high school teammate LaPhonso Ellis for their humility that helped shape him as a man. He also praised his hometown of East St. Louis, Ill., which taught him how to overcome conditions and environments that don't always produce success.
But the opportunities knocked. Purdue called, and Martin answered. The NBA called, and Martin answered. Cancer called, and Martin answered.
In 1997, Martin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and was treated for a tumor between his heart and lungs. Five months later, he beat the cancer, which is in full remission, and has been promoting cancer research and awareness since.
After eight seasons as an assistant at his alma mater and three years as head coach at Missouri State preaching family while leading his own family, the Vols called. And Martin has answered.
"When opportunities knock and present themselves at such a high level, you have to figure out what's best for you and your family," Martin said. "My timetable is I plan on being here for the duration. My job is coaching every day one day at a time, God willing, so the next day I can continue to coach this team. I don't look 10, 15 years down the road because nothing's guaranteed.
"The thing my wife and I try to do is pray about the best case scenario, what's best for me and my family. If I was single, I could coach anywhere. But I think you've got to make decisions based on what's best for your family."
Now, Martin's family wears orange.