When Miles Bridges committed to Michigan State in early October 2015, Spartans assistant coach Dwayne Stephens got a call from the five-star recruit’s mother, Cynthia.
They discussed what they hoped Bridges would achieve at Michigan State. Then the mother told Stephens that her son almost left his home state to play college basketball.
“You know,” she told him, “it may have been tough for you guys to get Miles if Coach Corn had stayed at Iowa State.”
Had Fred Hoiberg not left to coach the Chicago Bulls, his assistant Cornell Mann — Coach Corn — might have received the call instead of Stephens.
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Mann, Stephens’ cousin, had become one of his toughest competitors on the recruiting trail. And now Mann is part of Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff.
Martin assigned Mann to co-run the offense with fellow assistant Chris Hollender, and Martin wants Mizzou to recruit Michigan, a state Mann hails from and an area the Tigers had success recruiting during the Norm Stewart era.
But can a program still recovering from three miserable years under Kim Anderson recruit a state that has two Big Ten blue bloods, Michigan State and Michigan? Mann is ready to prove the Tigers can. Missouri is targeting Rocket Watts and Harlond Beverly, a pair of 2019 four-star recruits.
After starting at Colorado, Mann finished playing college basketball at Akron and decided he wanted to go into coaching. He had run camps with Stephens during their summers off from college.
Mann had a well-paying job as a mental health clinician. He also ran a hat and T-shirt company on the side. But he gave that up to be a graduate assistant at Elmira College, a Division III school in upstate New York. He gave his brother his car because he could no longer afford it. The job only paid $2,500.
“It was awesome,” Mann said.
He eventually landed an assistant coaching job at Central Michigan in 2001, where he befriended Steve Hawkins, a fellow assistant at rival Western Michigan.
“Even though we were assistants at rival schools, we hit it off,” Hawkins said. “More than anything I thought we saw eye-to-eye on why we are in this business. We understand we have to win games to keep our jobs. He really does have a passion for young people and helping young people. And not just on the court, but in life.”
When Hawkins became Western Michigan’s coach in 2003, he knew he needed a recruiting presence in Detroit. He hired Mann.
Hawkins worked for legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for 10 years and coached all over the country before arriving at Western Michigan. Hawkins quickly learned recruiting the state was different.
“I have never coached in a state and recruited in a city that is like Detroit,” he said. “If they do not trust you, you will not get access, and Cornell has absolute trust of the entire coaching community in Detroit and on the east side of the state.
“I don’t know if you’re going to find too many folks that are going to say too many bad things about Cornell anywhere. In regards to Detroit, he has unlimited access to be able to recruit those kids.”
When Mann was at Central and Western Michigan, he was recruiting a different caliber of player than Michigan State and Michigan.
Now that he’s at Missouri, he’s directly competing with those schools.
Missouri can be a tough sell to Michigan players who are already considering the state’s best programs, which are regular top 25 teams.
“There’s no doubt about it that if Michigan or Michigan State saw these kids early it’s hard to get in play,” Hoiberg said. “But if you can get a head start on some of these guys and build a relationship at a young age, you have a chance.”
Stewart successfully got into Detroit in the late 1980s. Former Missouri standouts Jeff Warren, Nathan Buntin and Lee Coward were all Michigan natives in a class that led the Tigers to four straight NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 in 1989 and two Big Eight regular-season titles.
The legendary Missouri coach originally wanted to start a pipeline in New York or Chicago but was unable. Stewart said he never looked at the Spartans or Wolverines any differently than any other school recruiting the same player. He viewed them all as equal competition.
“I would tell a player, ‘Do you want to play at the Big M?” he said. “I said the bus will be by in half an hour to go play at the Big M.”
Except Stewart never specified what the “Big M” referred to.
“I didn’t tell them it wasn’t Michigan,” he joked. “It’s a long bus ride.”
While Michigan was recruiting Glen Rice, who would lead the Wolverines to the 1989 NCAA championship, Stewart landed one of his program’s greatest players, Doug Smith.
The Wolverines were too preoccupied with Rice to make Smith a priority, and now Smith’s number hangs in the rafters at Mizzou Arena.
While at Western Michigan, Mann dragged Hawkins to a small church gym to watch a lanky 7-foot prospect he thought could be a diamond in the rough. Hawkins never believed in the prospect like Mann, even though the player’s mother said Western Michigan could have him.
Hawkins passed on JaVale McGee, who played at Nevada and turned into a first-round draft pick. He won an NBA title with the Golden State Warriors in June.
Years after he tried to persuade Hawkins on McGee, Mann did something similar with Hoiberg, bringing him to watch the Michigan Mustangs AAU team.
While Michigan coach John Beilein was busy watching Derrick Walton, the team’s star player who eventually signed with the Wolverines, Mann had his eye on his teammate: Monte Morris.
Morris played off the ball while Walton played on it, which hid a bit of Morris’ talent. Hoiberg and Mann eventually got Morris to Iowa State, where he led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio all four years and led the Cyclones to three NCAA Tournaments.
By the time the blue bloods got wind of Morris in high school, Mann had closed the door on any chance they had of flipping him.
This is how Mann plans to be successful in Michigan with the Tigers. Spot talent early, establish a relationship and fend off top in-state programs.
“My eye is my eye,” Mann said. “I don’t really look at rankings, stars. I don’t even know what that means. Recruiting has a lot to do with your eye. There’s a lot that goes into that. I like kids that like to grind it out. A couple of times guys that are highly talented aren’t the kids that grind it out.”
Three of the players Mann has recruited are currently starters. He was the lead recruiter for Missouri graduate transfer Kassius Robertson, as well as Nick Babb at Iowa State and Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn at Oakland, where he landed after Iowa State.
Coincidentally, none of them are from Michigan.
Mann tries to get to other parts of the country every summer, so he has a backup plan in case a Michigan recruit goes elsewhere.
He’s won the trust of Michigan coaches because of the relationships he’s maintained with them, even years after he recruited their players.
“He’s got no ego,” said Steve Finamore, the varsity coach at East Lansing High School. “A lot of these clowns have egos. If you don’t have a player for them they don’t want no part of you. Corn is not like that. He goes to open gyms even if he’s not recruiting any players.”
For now, Mann has his hands full co-running Missouri’s offense without Michael Porter Jr., the team’s star freshman who might miss the rest of the season following back surgery.
Hawkins and Stephens said they wouldn’t be surprised if Mann gets looked at for a head coaching job, given his track record as a defensive guru and recruiter.
“The first athletic director that takes a chance on Cornell Mann is going to look like a genius,” Hawkins said. “He can get into a room. It doesn’t matter if it’s with boosters or parents. He’s a chameleon.”
Mann is busy at work with Missouri’s 2019 class, which has a lot of targets around the state as well as nationally — including Michigan, of course.
And if all goes as planned, he’ll be getting big phone calls, like the one he nearly received from Miles Bridges’ mother.