COLUMBIA, Mo. — “My plan is to be here for 20 years. This is it for me.”
The 19th head basketball coach in Missouri history, Cuonzo Martin has been called a job hopper. After three-year stints at Missouri State, Tennessee and Cal, there are several people who see his hiring and assume that Columbia, Mo., would be an opportunity for Martin to build the Tigers program back to respectability, but plateau as a bubble team before moving on to whatever job becomes available in three or four years, just as he did in each of those stops.
To listen to the 45-year-old Martin speak to a large crowd gathered at Mizzou Arena on Monday afternoon, you would never suspect that he would have such a reputation. Born in St. Louis, raised across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, and with a degree from Purdue, Martin is Midwest through and through. Those roots were apparent as he heaped praise upon Norm Stewart, the greatest coach in program history, and talked about growing up watching the great Missouri teams of the early 1990s.
“This is a special day,” Martin said. “It feels like home. As you all know, I’m a Midwest guy and this is a great, great feeling for me.”
The importance of Martin’s upbringing two hours east on I-70 doesn’t just come in to play when talking about his comfort with this new job. If there is one place the Missouri basketball program has struggled over recent years — and there have been many — a failure to recruit locally, particularly in the hotbed of St. Louis, has to rank right near the top. From David Lee to Jayson Tatum, the Tigers have failed time and again to bring in the best players from the biggest city in the state, only to watch them thrive elsewhere. Martin is expected to change that.
“I think he will make a big difference in St. Louis recruiting,” said junior forward Jordan Barnett, the only player on the roster from the St. Louis area. “There’s obviously a lot of talent in St. Louis. Him being an in-state guy — having pull within the city, I think that’s going to be huge for the university. I can’t wait to see what he does.”
Locking down the state of Missouri will begin as soon as tomorrow. Martin’s family will head back to California as his children finish their school year, and so the next several weeks for the new coach will be dedicated to putting together his staff and bringing in some fresh new talent to a roster in desperate need of it.
With a fresh crop of recruits — particularly intriguing if Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s top-ranked recruit, signs with his hometown team as rumored — Martin believes this could be a much shorter turnaround than many might expect.
“I’m not in the business or waiting three or four years,” he said.
Martin does have some time, of course. As hopeful as Tiger fans are that he is the right man for the job, expectations for the program have never been lower after just 27 wins over the past three seasons. A .500 team next season would make fans as happy as they’ve been in a long time.
That’s not the goal for the Missouri program, however. For SEC fans who are only familiar with a perennial loser, most probably don’t recognize the fact that, somewhat unique in the Southeastern Conference, Missouri is a basketball school, first and foremost. The fans in Columbia and across the state expect an NCAA bubble team in a bad year. It’s safe to say that its new head coach has a similar mentality.
“We have everything to be the last team standing one day,” Martin said. “That’s my goal.”
The program is a long way from realizing that goal at this moment in time. Even the best high school player in the country won’t bring that type of turnaround overnight. But with a proven winner and recruiter at the helm, Missouri appears to have made its best hire in decades. Now, it’s time for Martin to go out and back up that hype.
As Missouri’s interim chancellor Hank Foley said when introducing Martin to the crowd, “This is your house now, Cuonzo.”