Nine years ago, then-Missouri State athletic director Bill Rowe and school president Mike Nietzel needed a new men’s basketball coach.
The pair independently assembled their list of candidates with one name appearing atop both lists — Cuonzo Martin.
A two-hour interview at a pizza shop in West Lafayette, Ind. — where Martin was an assistant coach for his alma mater, Purdue — confirmed to Rowe and Nietzel he was the ideal candidate.
“I always have admired his attitude,” said Rowe, who was the Bears’ baseball coach from 1963-82 and served as athletic director from 1982-2009. “At that meeting, he was so humble. He’d beaten cancer and talked about how important life is, not just for him but for the kids he recruits.
“Not that I thought he was going to be brash, but he was exactly what I was hoping he would be like. When we left there, I said, ‘This guy is too good to be true.’ We felt like he was the guy we wanted to hire.”
Apparently, first-year Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk felt the same way after a two-week search for a new basketball coach ended Wednesday with the hiring of Martin.
“I felt like we had a home run when we hired him, and I feel like the University of Missouri has done the very same thing,” Rowe said.
Sterk zeroed in on Martin as his top choice to succeed Kim Anderson from the beginning, multiple sources told The Star.
Within days of Sterk’s trip to Oakland, Calif., on Sunday to meet with Martin, the two sides hammered out a seven-year, $21 million deal.
Martin will be formally introduced during a press conference 4 p.m. Monday at Mizzou Arena.
“When I called Cuonzo last week, I said, ‘You’re getting more ink around here than Donald Trump. Everything I pick up, your name is at the top of the list,’” Rowe said. “He giggled about it and we had a good visit. To me, it looks like Sterk had him at the top of the list just like we did when we went to visit him back years ago. They must've had the same feelings that we did.”
For good reason, if you ask Hall of Fame coach Gene Keady, who coached Martin at Purdue.
“He’s one of the best leaders I ever had at Purdue …,” Keady said. “I don’t think (Missouri) could have found a better fit. Of course, I’m prejudiced. He’s like my son.”
Keady lauded Martin’s toughness and tenacity, noting that his playing career was threatened by cartilage damage in his knees.
“The trainer told us he’d never play at Purdue because he had bone-on-bone in both knees,” Keady said. “But he ran the stadium stairs in Ross-Ade Stadium and lifted weights and worked to be a great athlete because of his work ethic. Each year, he just got better because of that work ethic and his good attitude.”
Those same traits have served him well as a coach.
After Martin’s bout with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in late 1997, Keady promised him a spot on his staff if he finished his degree.
Martin worked as an assistant coach at West Lafayette High for a year while completing a bachelor’s degree in restaurant, hotel, institutional and tourism management then became a Boilermakers assistant the next fall.
“The rest is history,” Keady said. “They ought to make a movie out of him, showing young people how to never give up.”
Martin inherits a Mizzou team that went 27-68, including an 8-46 record in the Southeastern Conference, during the last three seasons.
The Tigers have missed the NCAA Tournament four straight years and haven’t won a tourney game since 2010, but those who know him expect Martin is up for the challenge.
“He’s an outstanding person — somebody with a heart of a lion …,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who was a Purdue assistant when Martin played for the Boilermakers. “I think he will do a great job for (Missouri). He was at Missouri State and he’s from St. Louis, so a lot of connections there to help their program get going again.”
Martin is 186-121 in nine seasons as a head coach — three each at Missouri State, Tennessee and California.
There’s understandable concern that’s he’s job-hopped, but Rowe doesn’t think Mizzou fans should fret.
“He was so sincere and grateful for the opportunity we had given him,” Rowe said. “We didn’t have the money to compete with a place like Tennessee.”
Martin had success with the Volunteers — going 63-41, including a 32-30 record in conference that was bettered only by Florida’s Billy Donovan and Kentucky’s John Calipari — but fans didn’t seem to embrace him.
“I was praying he would get out of there because I didn't think he got treated fairly (at Tennessee),” Rowe said. “I can say that now. I just knew it wasn’t a good situation for him.”
Despite the rocky ending on Rocky Top, Martin “has never publicly bad-mouthed Tennessee and he's never complained about it,” Rowe said.
Instead, Martin moved on to Cal, where he finished 62-39 in three seasons and attracted elite recruits despite sky-high admissions standards.
“This is a guy who’s always handled himself with dignity,” Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. “More than anything, he’s an extremely high-character guy, who I think will also recruit high-character young men.”
Now, Martin also might be in the perfect spot to settle down.
“I do think that’s going to happen,” Elgin said. “The reason this can be a long-term home for Cuonzo is because it’s close to where he grew up and close to where he’s got recruiting ties. I think he’s going to do well. I’m excited for Cuonzo and his family. He’s one of the really fine people who has coached in our league.”
Elgin added, “We have some deeply embedded Missouri grads in the administration of the Missouri Valley, and they were slapping high-fives about the hire. It’s a good fit. It’s back in his recruiting wheelhouse, and I think Missouri hired the right guy.”
Martin was on the short list of candidates to replace Mike Anderson after he left for Arkansas six years ago before Missouri’s flirtation with Purdue’s Matt Painter fell apart.
Martin, who served on Painter’s staff from 2005-08, was plied away by Tennessee.
Three years later, Martin landed at California after helping the Volunteers navigate a two-year probation after an NCAA investigation into Bruce Pearl’s conduct, which culminated in a Sweet Sixteen run in 2014.
Former MU coach Frank Haith left for Tulsa two days later or Martin would have considered for the Tigers’ vacancy before Kim Anderson was hired.
Finally, the stars aligned and Martin will be Mizzou’s coach.
“The fact that he is, in a sense, home again in the Midwest and not in the Southeast or the West Coast is an important way to look at the step for him,” Elgin said. “… It’s a more natural fit, and he’s coming into a place where they need a jolt. I think it’s a fresh start for him and the school. There are no guarantees, but I think he gives them a chance to be good again.”