THE EARLY SIGNING period in basketball took a mountain of prospects off the board back in November,…
MARTIN: Peace and Love
So, it comes as no surprise that one of his five pupils to take the reins of major college basketball programs – new California head coach Cuonzo Martin -- stresses academics.
Two years before Martin took the job at Tennessee, the Volunteers men's basketball program posted a 924 academic progress rating, meriting a reduction of one scholarship.
By the time Martin left Knoxville, Tennessee was well on its way to a perfect APR score of 1000.
One of the big reasons that Martin took the Cal job was because of the university's academic reputation.
"I'm very humbled at this point," Martin said. "To come from East St. Louis, Ill., and come coach at the No. 1 public university in the world is very humbling."
Apart from a focus on academics, Martin also took many other lessons from Keady, including his former head coach's constancy.
"You're talking about one of the toughest guys to ever coach the game -- a very humble man," Martin said. "He wasn't arrogant, wasn't a cocky man, but coached hard. He was tough on his guys. He demanded we go to class, doing the right things all the time, and he did it on a consistent basis. It wasn't the case when we had success or when we had failures – he coached the same way all the time."
Judging by the outpouring of support from former players on Twitter following Martin's departure, that's the way he coaches. He has learned from a master, yes, but he's also now replacing one in Mike Montgomery. It's not anything new to Martin. He did it before, at Tennessee, when he replaced the beloved Bruce Pearl, ousted after the 2010-11 season and given a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA during an investigation into recruiting violations regarding the recruitment of Aaron Craft.
"You have your style of play, and you carve out your niche. That's the most important thing," Martin said. "I think, for me, it's always the administrative support, the fan support, the community, the former players, the alumni, all those things are very important for me, and in order for our program to have success at a high level, we have to have a tremendous student section. For me as a coach, your style is your style, and I don't mind following guys. I like learning from guys. That's the most important thing. Coach Montgomery is one of the best teachers that ever taught the game, so I will definitely pick his brain about things."
Martin's tenure in Knoxville soured because of three straight slow starts. More than 36,000 Tennessee fans signed an online petition asking the Volunteers to bring Pearl back. Pearl then accepted the job at Auburn, and then, Martin guided Tennessee to its first Sweet Sixteen berth since 2010.
"To be honest with you, I didn't hear about it until it was too late, because one thing about it is, when you coach, you've got your head down and you're working. You don't get consumed with anything peripheral outside of your players, and for me, I thought it was a great teaching point for our players," Martin said. "We always talk about having character and going through adversity, and what happens in that process is you develop a young man, because they saw my approach to it. I came to work with my hard hat on, and I think what happened was young men became men in the process, because as a coach, you continue to lead through adversity. It didn't bother me at all, and I thought it was a great teaching moment for our players."
How did Martin find out about the petition? It came from an opposing coach.
"I found out about it when we were on the road, and after the game, the coaches were saying, ‘Coach, I'm praying for you. I think you're a good man, you're doing a great job. It's unfortunate,' and normally, after a game, you shake hands and move on," Martin said. "Then, I walked around and his assistant coach came behind him and said, ‘Coach, I'm praying for you. You want to pray?' And what happened was, I went into the locker room, after I met with our players, and I went in there with the staff, and said, ‘Guys, is there something I need to know?'"
His staff then said, ‘Maybe it's the petition,' but, Martin laughs, "I had no clue."
"Truthfully? It really didn't [hurt my feelings], and I'll tell you why," Martin said. "When you're talking about a sport, win or lose, whatever happens, it doesn't change me as a man. It doesn't change my ability to be a father, a husband, a son to my mom. That doesn't change."
That part of Martin's personality was no surprise to his mentor, Keady.
"Cuonzo Martin is the best leader I've ever been associated with in 55 years of coaching," Keady said. "He's determined to do things the right way. Cal is getting a great mentor & coach to replace another great leader in Motgomery. He is a great family man, a great program man and he was a pleasure to coach."
Family was the centerpiece of what Martin preached to his new charges when he met with them at 10:30 a.m. at Haas Pavilion on Tuesday.
"He talked about love and family," said freshman Jabari Bird. "A lot of guys were giving him great feedback on his personality as a coach, saying he was really fun to play for."
He's also preached a new type of offense for the Bears, one which could take advantage of the athleticism currently on the roster, highlighted by Bird, fellow freshman Jordan Mathews and sophomore Tyrone Wallace.
"We run a motion-style offense," Martin said. "We have spacing and we penetrate the gaps. We throw it inside to our bigs. I'm one of those guys that, if you're a guard and you can post up, then you post up. If you're a big, you can play on the perimeter. It's a free-flowing offense with a lot of spacing, setting screens and attacking the rim. Last year, we were one of five teams in the country that was in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. You have to be able to do both."
That's the one constant in the transition from Montgomery to Martin: An emphasis on defense. Last year, Tennessee ranked 21st in the nation in offensive rebounds, 18th in scoring defense, third in rebounding margin and 19th in scoring margin (+10.5 ppg).
"I think, first and foremost, when you talk about style of play, we want to defend at a high level," Martin said. "We've got to do that first and foremost. Our goal is to be the best defensive team in the league, fight for the top spot in the country. We have to do that in order to be successful. The thing I talk about all the time is that shots don't always fall. We've got to defend, rebound and play hard every night."
Playing hard every night was something that this year's Cal team had trouble doing, and, over the last season, that's meant also petering out towards the end of the season. Martin's teams have had the opposite problem – starting the season out slowly.
"I think each year is different, and I'll say the first year taking over a program, we lost 80 percent of our offensive firepower," Martin said. "Six seniors and two guys who went into the draft early, so you had a tough schedule, and we got better later. The second year, our best player at that time sat out the whole season in Jeronne Maymon, and again, we played a tough schedule. I like to schedule quality opponents, so that was tough, but we made adjustments, tweaked some things.
"This past year, we had the personnel, but what happened was, you bring in two new point guards, bring Jeronne Maymon back in the fold – when he left the program, he was the best player on the team, but when he came back, he was probably the third- or fourth-best on the team. The adjustments to be able to play together – the chemistry and the camaraderie and the flow – they took some time. We always get better down the end, because we continue to work on skill and we continue to grow as a team."
In replacing Montgomery, Martin is also replacing an assistant who helped to build the current roster – Montgomery's favored candidate for the job, Travis DeCuire. Montgomery stumped for DeCuire during his retirement press conference, and sources say that DeCuire was the favored choice of athletic director Sandy Barbour. DeCuire was also the favored candidate of the five freshmen on the team, who went, en masse, to visit Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in the midst of the process.
It was a visit that Bird all but laughed off on Tuesday.
"I remember I was walking to class, and I ran into a couple of the other freshmen, and they said, ‘Oh, we've got to meet with the chancellor,' so we went to his office, but we got turned away. He was too busy to meet with us, anyway," Bird smiled.
Did he take any offense to being turned away?
"Not even," Bird chuckled. "He's an important guy on campus, so I'm pretty sure he has other things to deal with besides five freshmen."
Still, though, the first thing Martin had to do was recruit his own roster, to make sure that all of them stay.
"I don't think anybody's making any plans on leaving or anything like that," Bird said. "The vibe that I got today was that everybody was happy about the decision, and we're ready to move forward. We definitely all wanted Travis to be our head coach. That's what we were pushing for, but it wasn't up to us, and we've got a great coach and we're ready to move forward."
Once Martin returns to Berkeley on Friday, he'll continue the process of making sure the current players feel welcome and wanted, and then, it's time to turn his attention to the two signees -- Idrissa Diallo and Ahmaad Rorie -- as well as the 2015 and 2016 prospects already on Cal's radar. To do that, Martin – who's only ever been to the Bay Area once (back in his playing days for Purdue, when he beat the University of San Francisco) – will have to hire some assistants who know the landscape of Bay Area and California AAU programs and high schools.
"I feel like we need to hire good assistants. That's the most important thing," Martin said. "You've got to have guys that know the area, but you've also got to have quality guys that understand how to recruit and understand me, but also, I want guys who are able to teach the game, as well. That's very important, but you have to recruit, and I'll recruit just like an assistant coach. I will be out there pretty much every day, so that won't change. But, you have to have guys that understand the lay of the land, the integrity and the character of what you do, but they have to be able to teach on the floor."
Martin is possessed of a quiet confidence that he can keep the recruits already signed – though Diallo notably signed a scholarship agreement, rather than a National Letter of Intent.
"I'm confident that I'll talk with them. That's the most important thing, because, obviously, you've got to get to know them, sell the program," Martin said. "There's a reason why they chose to come here in the first place. It's a great institution, and you can't take away the fact that you're getting a tremendous degree, when it's all said and done, if you're here for four years."
One theme remains the same – just like Keady – throughout every facet of Martin's nascent tenure in Berkeley, through every philosophy and every approach.
"That's what our program is all about: Sharing the love and the trust and building a community," said Martin. "I think with young guys you recruit into your program, they get used to a certain staff, and when the staff and coaches change, it's not easy, and I understand that. My job is to allow those guys to let their guards down, to give me an opportunity. The two things I talk to our guys about are trust and love. I think, the first thing, in order for us to go forward, we have to have trust amongst each other. The thing I talked to those guys a lot about was love, because love, if you let your guard down, it allows me to coach you and allows me to lead you, so it's very important for me."
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