Vols' Coach Inspires Team, Preps For Mercer
By Jason Yellin
RALEIGH, N.C. -- For Cuonzo Martin, reaching the Round of 32 with the Vols is a significant on-court achievement, but it doesn't define who he is. The head coach of Tennessee has had a plan since he was hired nearly three years ago to guide the Volunteers in their lives both on and off the court.
The two wins in the NCAA Tournament demonstrate his success in basketball, but he has much grander plans for helping 15 young men develop into mature adults.
The 2013-14 season has been a trying one for the Vols, at least in the eye of the public.
But Martin doesn't view it that way. He has tremendous perspective heading into the most important game of his coaching career.
"I never look at it as ups and downs," Martin said during his Saturday press conference "You go through things in life. You build. For me, it's always a teaching point for our guys.
"Things happen in life. Something happened and you're married. Something happens to one of your children as you raise them. Something happens to your parents. You go through things. Do you give up? Do you fold or do you keep pushing?
"For me, these are the teaching points because if you put the work in, eventually the results will follow. That's how I look at it. If you're consistent in your approach and doing it the right way, you get the results. For me, it's always a blessing to be able to teach these things for our guys and become better men."
When the Vols lost to Texas A&M for the second time this season, exactly one month ago on Feb. 22, Martin never lost faith and stayed true to himself. Now 30 days later, Tennessee is playing for a spot in the Sweet 16.
"I just ask that God give me the necessary equipment and tools to make these guys understand the importance of what they're going through right now, so they don't fold, so they don't give up," said Martin. "With most young guys, they want it right away. You have to keep pushing."
Martin has lived an inspirational life, learning many lessons along the way. Ones that he can pass along to the Vols on a daily basis.
He grew up in a single-parent home in the drug-ravaged streets of East St. Louis, Ill. But that didn't stop him.
He earned a scholarship to Purdue University, where he starred on the hardwood and paved his way to the NBA.
He was stricken with cancer at the age of 26. But that didn't stop him.
While playing professional basketball in Italy, Martin was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and returned to the United States for treatment of a malignant tumor between his heart and lungs. He received his last treatment on April 20, 1998, and is now in full remission.
After triumphing against cancer -- as he did with every obstacle previously placed in his path -- Martin was summoned by his college coach, Gene Keady, back to Purdue and received his bachelor's degree in 2000.
"For me, there's no give up," said Martin. "My mom didn't raise me like that. We don't have that kind of time and energy to give up. You've got to continue to fight in everything you're doing.
"I like to think I present that to our guys on a day-to-day basis. Not something you necessarily talk about. It's just how you approach life and how you go about your daily business."
When it comes to the 2014 Volunteers, Martin has stayed steadfast in his belief in them all along.
The day after what many in Knoxville and the college basketball world thought was the final blow to the Vols' NCAA Tournament hopes in 2014, Martin did what he always did -- he kept the faith.
How did he show that he believed in them? The day before the Vols faced Mississippi State on the road, on Feb. 25, Martin broke out the tune most synonymous with March Madness: "One Shining Moment."
Following a pre game film breakdown, the programming flipped from visions of Maroon & White Bulldogs to Luther Vandross's legendary tune with highlights of the biggest stage in college basketball.
"I think the reason we did it was just really to show the guys it's not over," said Martin. "It's a long season. We're right there.
"Just show our guys, we're right there, continue to fight, to not give up. Because those young guys, you can't get discouraged. I told them to keep battling, keep fighting."
That wasn't the only time, the Vols heard the melodic tunes. Martin had the lights lowered and the harmony came on again: "The Ball Is Tipped..."
"Just the vibe, the music, Luther Vandross singing, I thought it was great for your guys, just to get a feel for it."
On Sunday evening in Raleigh, the Vols hope to move one note closer to hearing that tune in Texas. But even if they don't, Martin will lead his men back to Knoxville with their heads held high.