Cuonzo reappears

Marvin Westwestwords

Old friend Cuonzo Martin will return to Tennessee’s life for a couple of hours on Wednesday night.

You do remember Cuonzo? He was basketball coach of the Volunteers for a short-short, after Bruce Pearl and before Donnie Tyndall, who was coach for a shorter-short.

Cuonzo is the new main man at Missouri, enjoying a seven-year contract, $21 million guaranteed. This is his fourth stop in a decade. Such mobility suggests he might be better at getting jobs than doing them. Not every coach catches such a gig after losing to Cal State-Bakersfield in the NIT.

Perhaps you recall when Cuonzo came to Knoxville, on his way up from Missouri State. Primary qualification? He was clean as the proverbial hound’s tooth in the eyes of the NCAA. That was the greatest need of the UT chancellor and athletics director at the time – to make investigators go away and forget Pearl.

Fans never forgot.

Cuonzo was not exactly happy at Tennessee. He probably was a poor fit. He was and is a remarkable man in many ways, tough as nails, an excellent role model, but oh, so calm as a coach. He didn’t call time at the correct time. He never connected with paying customers. Even his TV shows were boring.

When he surprised us all by wedging his final team into the tournament, he did not get the Dave Hart praise or raise he expected. He left for Cal-Berkeley without saying goodbye.

Martin did OK on the west bank but nothing great. Recruiting was better than results. Most permanent residents, visionaries and environmentalists deeply engrossed in flute concerts and wine and cheese events, didn’t notice or care. Yes, I’ve been to Berkeley.

It wasn’t too difficult for Missouri to coax Cuonzo back toward reality. The Tigers sold him on geography, almost homecoming, just half a state away from his roots in East St. Louis. As an added incentive, he could show the SEC a thing or two.

Cuonzo has already done for Mizzou what we thought Rick Barnes would do for UT – bring in top talent. Martin took a short cut. During his second day on the job, he hired a famous father as an assistant coach and got his famous son, Michael Porter Jr., as a throw-in. Young Porter, 6-10, was the No. 1 high school player in the country. A younger Porter, Jontay, 6-9 and very talented, joined the family plan.

Missouri invested a mere $350,000 per year in the Porter package deal. It paid immediate dividends. Others came to play with the Porters. In a knee-jerk reaction, Las Vegas listed the Tigers at 18-1 to win the national championship. Cuonzo blinked.

Two minutes into the season, one wheel fell off his chariot. The best Porter was lost to back surgery. Just the other day, freshman point guard Blake Harris, who signed with Missouri to play with Porter, transferred to North Carolina State. Another good Tiger, C.J. Roberts, left the team. The net result was nervous indigestion.

Cuonzo did not forfeit. The Tigers are 12-5. They won at South Carolina, first SEC road victory in almost four years. They lost at home to Florida. They defeated Georgia. They lost at Arkansas. They’ll be waiting in ambush to see if the Volunteers can really handle success.

I’ve tried to forget most of the Cuonzo era at Tennessee. His teams were difficult to watch. They scored 38 at Virginia, 36 at Georgetown, 44 at Kentucky and 47 at Vanderbilt.

Those were not the best of times or even the good ole days. The coach is doing much better, thank you, in his current role, even without his prize purchase, oops, recruit.

(Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected])

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