clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Overstating the ‘risk’ of Cuonzo Martin’s hire

The hire could fail, but come on. A gamble?

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start this by saying Cuonzo Martin was not my first choice to be the next Mizzou basketball coach. As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I was fully aboard the Tom Crean train and, when that went off the rails, I started grasping for Kevin Keatts-shaped straws.

I looked at Martin and felt like many Mizzou fans: “Meh.” There’s no doubt Martin is a solid coach and better recruiter. I just personally thought there were better options available.

However, I am not the athletic director at the University of Missouri. That would be Jim Sterk, and yesterday Sterk went and got his man to the tune of a 7-year deal thought to be around $3 million per year.

The consensus around Mizzou Twitter was... mixed, to say the least. But that’s not really of concern here. We’ll have time to break down why Mizzou fans should or should not be excited, especially if other events unfold as we think they might.

I’m here to talk about this column from a celebrated Mizzou alum, Yahoo’s Pat Forde. I should also preface by saying I like Pat Forde. I met him during my time at Mizzou. He’s a nice, smart guy, and I generally enjoy his work. And while I agree with the general concept of his column, I have to say I think it’s contradictory for contradiction's sake.

Or, to put it another way:

Let’s break some of it down, shall we?

Risk takers, unite.

Cuonzo Martin is taking a risk by accepting the Missouri basketball job.

Yeah, OK. I can get on board with that. Next?

He’s going to a school with Academic Progress Rate issues that could affect postseason eligibility. He’s going to a school that has an ongoing investigation into claims from a former tutor that she did classwork for athletes – this coming while the basketball program is already on probation for violations that occurred during Frank Haith’s tenure.

...I’m less on board with this, mostly because I’m not exactly sure what Forde is referring to. No, Mizzou isn't in great standing in terms of APR, but they’re also not in danger of major NCAA sanctions. If there’s one thing Kim Anderson absolutely accomplished, it’s steering Mizzou somewhat out of danger in this regard.

As for this ‘ongoing investigation’ into the tutor’s claims, I’m just not sure there’s enough here to justify using it as a supporting point. Yes, if the former tutor’s claims hold up, Mizzou could be in big trouble. But at last check, Yolanda Kumar is offering details of her allegations to get money for her transcripts, and the university says it’s cooperating with the NCAA. So far the initial blow-up has led to a whole lot of nothing. And while basketball could be involved, the allegations seemed more centered around the football team. Not fun, to be sure, but also probably not Cuonzo Martin’s problem.

And that probation that adds to the ‘risk’? I guess it’s technically still going on since the 2016-2017 season isn’t over. But going into next year, Mizzou is no longer on probation. So as long as Martin doesn’t screw it up in the next few weeks, the probation shouldn’t be an issue.

Moving on.

He’s going to a school that has put a terrible product on the floor for several years in front of thousands of empty seats, as a dissatisfied malaise settled over the fan base.

thinks hard

Malaise is a super fun word.

He’s going to a school just now emerging from racially charged incidents and protests that nearly shook Mizzou’s famous quadrangle columns off their bases.

Ah, there it is. That old chestnut. “Mizzou is still in turmoil, reeling from the 2015 protests. Every day, they’re sending people to hold up the columns that apparently almost fell off their bases. It’s like a war zone there!”

This isn’t the place to discuss the 2015 protests, though you can read my personal thoughts here: I was a student at the time.

Maybe I’ve put myself in a social media bubble, but it seems like the only people that still bring up the 2015 protests are national columnists looking to milk the story for all its newsworthiness ... and Clay Travis. Most people in Columbia or concerned with Columbia have moved on from that time. That’s not to say we should totally forget everything that happened. But I think the general agreement was, “Let’s take what we learned here, be better, and move on.”

I don’t know Cuonzo Martin, but I doubt the events of November 2015 played a major factor in his decision-making here.

Missouri, meanwhile, is taking a chance by hiring Martin. It is giving a seven-year contract to a man who has never stayed more than three years in any job, hopscotching from Missouri State to Tennessee to California since 2008-09. It is giving a reported $3 million a year to a coach with a grand total of two NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons, six of those seasons at bid-friendly Power Five conference schools. It is investing heavily in a coach who had huge recruiting coups at Cal but zero NCAA tourney victories to those for them.

There’s a lot here, and none of it is really new. It’s undeniable that Martin has a reputation after nine years of head-coaching: he’s a job-hopper; he can recruit, but he can’t coach; $3 million per year for a guy who’s won two NCAA tournament games?

All of these concerns can be explained away, some more satisfactorily than others.

Is Martin a job-hopper? Technically, yes, but that’s being a bit general about it, right?

He left Missouri State to take a job with Tennessee because obviously.

He left Tennessee to take a job with California because Vol fans couldn’t handle the fact he wasn’t Bruce Pearl — you know, despite taking his team to the Sweet 16 in his third year.

He left California to take the job at Mizzou because (I assume) the academic standards at California made it hard to get the players he needed. But he got Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb! So imagine who he could’ve had at a school where more guys could get in. That’s not a knock against Cal-Berkeley, it’s just the truth of the matter.

Can he coach as well as he can recruit? At this point in his career, you’d be hard-pressed to say yes. But one thing is for sure: his teams are always good. He won more than 20 games twice at Missouri State. He almost won 20 games at Tennessee 3 years in a row before being run out of town by a rabid fanbase. And again, he nearly won 20 games three years in a row at Cal, taking them to one NCAA tournament.

But $3 million per year for only 2 NCAA tournament wins? Again, you can argue he’s never had a fully bought-in program. Missouri State is Missouri State. (Sorry, Bears fans: your school is awesome and Mother’s is a great brewery.) Tennessee never actually wanted him. And California’s admissions standards make it hard to get that many top-notch players to the school.

There’s also a supply-demand argument to be made concerning his salary. Personally, I’m not as concerned about it. $3 million is a lot of money, but Sterk wanted Martin and made sure the offer reflected as much. That judgment is on his head now, not Martin’s.

So maybe this is a match in risk-taking heaven.

Again, I generally agree with the fact that there is risk with this hire. Martin has never proven he can build a program. Jim Sterk is betting that Martin can realize his potential at a program starving for competitive basketball and the financial resources to give Martin full support. And you better believe with this contract, Sterk will be behind Martin 100%.

The fact of the matter is this: for all Cuonzo Martin has not proven in his young career (he’s only 45!), he has proven just as much. He may not be a great coach yet, but he’s a great recruiter. And that’s more than Mizzou has been able to say about its coach for the past three to six (or maybe 11) years.

He may not have many deep NCAA tournament runs on his resume, but he’s sure as hell proven he’ll get his teams to the dance. That’s more than Mizzou has been able to say for the past 3 years.

And yes, $3 million is a lot of money to be paying a coach. But when’s the last time Mizzou fans have been able to even argue about paying a basketball coach that much money?

All things considered, Cuonzo Martin isn’t a world-beater, and Mizzou is betting that he will become one soon. That is risky. But consider for a moment the last few guys to take the Mizzou job. Martin’s track record with recruiting and a .606 career win percentage make him the most ‘established’ head coach to ever take over in Columbia.

Like it or not, it might be the safest hire Mizzou has ever made.