Throughout the years of covering Cuonzo Martin with my boots on the ground in Columbia, Missouri, musing to every whim of Mizzou athletics as the hometown daily newspaper’s sole beat reporter, I’ve learned a few things about the 50-year-old East St. Louis, Illinois native along the way.
First and least important, there’s a miniscule chance he reads this. It’s not a me problem or a him not figuring out how to get to a website issue. Coverage about Martin, his players and MU doesn’t consume him. He’s never been entertained by a well-thought-out lede or annoyed when I wrote about how all his offseason recruiting of fans to pack Mizzou Arena for home games was ruined in the Tigers’ second contest of the season, a 80-66 loss to mid-major in-state competition, Kansas City.
Up until Missouri’s trio of December losses against its two biggest rivals, Kansas and Illinois, along its lopsided defeat to open Southeastern Conference play against Kentucky, I was reluctant to talk about Martin’s job security, even when directly asked about it during radio and television spots. Then losses to the Jayhawks, Illini and Wildcats were by a combined 89 points. Yes, those teams are either national-championship contenders or viewed as a longshot value pick to win the NCAA Tournament, but the Tigers needed to do better in each of those games. That doesn’t encapsulate the near-misses, like a 1-point loss to then-No. 1 Auburn, or other gaffes, like scoring 14 points in a half against Liberty.
The hottest topic in the MU athletics universe has been the same since the calendar flipped to 2022. Would Martin be the Tigers’ head coach come next season? No clear indication has been given either way, meaning it’s a well-kept secret, or the more-likely scenario, Missouri athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois and other decision makers at the university haven’t come to a conclusion yet. For once, maybe it’s not lip service that reviews of coaches are actually taking place after the season ends?
No matter how you slice it, this was Martin’s recruited roster in year No. 5 in Columbia, the best he could do from the prep ranks and transfer portal are on his bench.And the Tigers didn’t even meet the low bar set out for them this season. As Missouri opens SEC Tournament play on Wednesday against Ole Miss, it’s a legitimate thought that a loss would be his final game at the helm at Mizzou.
Martin’s contract makes letting him go more complicated. He can’t be fired without cause because of qualifying for two NCAA Tournaments until May 1. And his buyout is $6 million until May 2023, which isn’t a huge amount for a well-funded group of boosters, but still not an unimportant chunk of change for an athletic department working out of a deficit for the last several years. And that’s not including paying a new coach. That number reduces to $3 million on May 1, 2023. Could those costs also be negated by raised interest and better attendance under a new coach? Missouri finished No. 12 out of 14 teams in home attendance among SEC teams. It’s not too far from ninth and last on either side of MU.
It’s hard to ignore the positives surrounding Martin, too. And I understand some of this has little to do with winning college basketball games. But when making high-level hires, you’re hiring the person and their baggage, too, not only someone to hold a clipboard and talk to officials. Look at Urban Meyer for example. Martin grew up in a single-parent home in the East St. Louis neighborhood nicknamed “Da Hole” because of how hard it is for kids to dig themselves out. After the birth of his first child, Martin was diagnosed with cancer. He dug himself out of that, too. Now, he’s about to finish his 14th year as a Division-I basketball coach, 11 coming in a high-level conference.
To put it bluntly, he’s a good, honest man in a profession where the number of upstanding men is dwindling.
The cupboard was incredibly bare when Martin took over and the program has shown great signs under his leadership. But has there been enough? I mentioned Reed-Francois earlier, who was on the search committee that brought Martin from Missouri State to Tennessee in 2011. Her son, Jackson Francois, is slated to be a walk-on for the team next year and committed to the program to play for Martin after his official visit this summer in Columbia, with his mom in attendance, on a small vacation while in her final months as the athletic director at UNLV.
It’s her first major decision as Missouri’s athletic director because of the short-term ramifications. From my interactions with her, I don’t think she’d hesitate to pull out a pink slip if that’s what she felt was necessary here, instead of protecting a personal friendship. Reed-Francois’ bigger loyalties are to Mizzou as a whole and herself before thinking of Martin. Yet, her past nearly guarantees that if Martin is let go, she took every avenue to see if she believed he could eventually turn MU into a legitimate yearly SEC contender and found no tangible data.
What he’s done to help the players that have entered his program might not be flashy enough for the limelight, like hot takes about his job security are. Carving out time to get his players fitted for suits, making sure they have a basic knowledge of how to do their taxes before they graduate and taking educational team trips, like a January 2021 detour to The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama before a game against Auburn matter most to the people that wear Missouri jerseys on the court and their families.
In the cutthroat business of college athletics, none of that registers on a scale to single-handedly save Martin’s job. When asked directly this past weekend about whether he expects to get year No. 6 with Mizzou, his answer: “What I do expect is, I expect to get up tomorrow, go to church, of course I count my blessings. I don’t worry about that though. I don’t. I don’t worry about that.”
That’s Martin in a nutshell. He’s not resigned to being forced to resign. He has life experience most of us lack and it dictates his every behavior. Basketball is a passion of his, no doubt, and this season’s losses definitely affected his professional life. But that’s only a slice of who Martin is. It’s a complex, yet understandable, way of going about every day that makes sweating the small stuff appear a much larger sin. I’m not advocating for Martin to stay. I’m not using my voice to say Missouri should look elsewhere, although his results on the court trend towards needing another school to coach.