UK Men's Basketball

Tennessee coach Martin injects toughness into Vols

Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin credits his college coach at Purdue, Gene Keady, for his hard-nosed approach.
Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin credits his college coach at Purdue, Gene Keady, for his hard-nosed approach. ASSOCIATED PRESS

To say Tennessee reflects the personality of first-year coach Cuonzo Martin is to conjure the image of a relentless, difficult-to-dissuade opponent. "I was always a tough, hard-nosed guy coming out of East St. Louis," Martin said in October of growing up in a single-parent housing project apartment.

From there, he went to Purdue to play for another noted tough, hard-nosed guy: Gene Keady.

"I didn't have a true father figure, somebody to put the hammer down," Martin said of the role Keady filled.

Yet as much as Martin felt indebted to Keady, who later hired him as an assistant coach, he did not tell his father figure about the cancer diagnosis. Keady read in a newspaper about Martin's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Martin, then in his mid-20s and seemingly in ideal physical condition, meant no harm. He merely was living by his code: Adversity must be met with steely determination. Sympathy is unwanted.

You endure. You compete. You survive.

This credo came through as Martin spoke with reporters at the Southeastern Conference Media Day about his goal for the Tennessee program.

"Whomever the toughest teams in this league are," he said, "we want to be one of them."

On Saturday, Kentucky tastes the toughness Martin longs to make synonymous with Tennessee basketball.

To get the cancer scare out of the way early in this story, Martin had just finished playing for Purdue in the early 1990s and was in his first season with Avellino. Playing in Italy was something of a homecoming.

His unusual name, "Cuonzo" (pronounced Kahn-zoe), is of Italian derivation.

"My grandmother,'' Martin said of the family member responsible. "The doctor that delivered my dad, he was an Italian, and that was his name. When I went to play in Italy, there were a lot of people named Cuonzo.''

Neither a smoker nor a drinker, Martin found he was having trouble keeping food down. He struggled to sleep. His stomach hurt. He tired easily. At times, he labored to breathe. He lost 40 pounds.

A CAT scan disclosed a softball-size mass on the left side of his chest, pressing against his lung. Upon returning to the United States for treatment, Martin underwent chemotherapy.

Ultimately, he became cancer free.

"Amazing, kind of," Keady said. "We're all so happy."

That Martin survived was anything but surprising. It's what he does, and what he wants the Vols to do.

More than once, Keady referred to the "rough life" Martin lived as a child. When asked to explain, Keady replied with a question of his own. "You've been in a (housing) project, haven't you?" he said. "Not a very good place to live. You don't know when some knothead is going to come by and shoot guns at you.

"Usually, when you survive that kind of world, you're pretty darn competitive."

At Lincoln High School, Martin had to compete with 6-foot-9 LaPhonso Ellis (a future NBA lottery pick), 6-8 James Harris (a future NFL player) and 6-7 Chris Rodgers (later a star at Creighton).

"It wasn't so much you had to be tough to survive, it was you had to be tough to be successful in sports and compete," Martin told the St. Louis Dispatch a few years ago. "You take that on to college and your everyday life. You don't waver, you don't back down from anything. It just becomes who you are."

Keady came to consider Martin like a son. "Probably the best leader I ever had in 50 years of coaching," the old man said.

Keady taught basketball verities: defense first, take good shots, share the ball. Martin teaches the same.

"The stuff Coach Keady taught you could teach 30 years from now," Martin said.

Not that Martin was beyond the questioning that comes with youth.

"I didn't really care for it as a freshman and sophomore," he said. "As a junior and senior, I sounded just like him."

Martin meant that literally. Keady recalled Martin, the Purdue player, as a coach on the floor and in the locker room.

"An assistant would tell me, 'We don't have to meet long (at halftime) because Cuonzo already handled it,'" Keady said. "If we weren't containing the dribble, if we weren't playing good post 'D,' if we weren't getting back on defense and blocking out, he chewed their (butts) out. We didn't need to say much."

Martin exercised straight- forward, no-nonsense candor.

During a game, he might call out as he ran by the Purdue bench. "Coach, get that guy out of there, he's killing us," Keady said. "So he was pretty direct."

After beating cancer, Martin got another challenge from Keady. Finish work on a college degree, and get a spot on the Purdue staff.

Martin worked on Purdue's staff from 2000 to 2008. From there, he became head coach at Missouri State. After three seasons, Tennessee needed someone to pick up the pieces after firing the popular and successful Bruce Pearl.

Martin is the anti-Pearl. Pearl is the promoter, the Orange sports coat, the bare-chested attendee at a Lady Vols game. Martin does not even crack a smile on the official photo on the UT basketball Web site.

Martin did chuckle when recalling early practices in which he had Tennessee players wear weighted vests. He also used medicine balls.

"Trying to create a culture of hard-nosed basketball," he said.

Noting the difficulty for any first-year coach in changing the essence of a program, Kentucky Coach John Calipari saluted Martin's success converting the Vols into a no-nonsense, half-court team.

"You're not going to press good teams into submission," Calipari said in a seeming reference to Pearl's system. "You're not going to run them out of the gym. Not good teams. If you want to win championships, you have to do stuff in the half-court."

The players he inherited from Pearl's up-tempo, full-court pressing style had to adapt to Martin's buttoned-down basketball.

"You want to put them in the best situation to be successful," Martin said of this evolution. "Eventually, it comes down to how we will play. It's not an option."

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