Cuonzo Martin Is The Safest Hire For Illinois, But Not The Best

    Illinois native Cuonzo Martin played in the Big Ten and has experienced some success as a head coach at Tennessee and Cal, but that doesn't mean he's the answer for the Fighting Illini.

    March 13, 2017

    Illinois native Cuonzo Martin played in the Big Ten and has experienced some success as a head coach at Tennessee and Cal, but that doesn’t mean he’s the answer for the Fighting Illini.


    Cuonzo Martin watched anxiously as the NCAA Tournament bracket unfolded Sunday evening waiting to see where and against whom his Cal team would play in the postseason.

    Then, he got the news. The Golden Bears had earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

    A No. 1 seed in the NIT, that is.

    Rumors are swirling that Martin is one of the top candidates to head back home to Illinois and coach the Fighting Illini, who on Saturday fired head coach John Groce. And it sure seems like a natural fit.

    Martin starred at Lincoln High School while growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., winning two state championships. He likely would’ve attended Illinois if not for a scandal brought on by then-Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl that sent negative attention toward the Illini program.

    Instead, Martin headed to fellow Big Ten school Purdue. He had a productive tenure, then beat the cancer that cut his playing career short. He returned to the Boilermakers to assist Gene Keady and then Matt Painter over eight seasons.

    In short, Martin has plenty of experience in the conference and in recruiting a state that often produces top-level talent.

    That’s all well and nice, getting a hometown guy to come to Illinois to turn around a program that missed the NCAA Tournament the last four of Groce’s five seasons in Champaign. That also makes it a safe hire, one that won’t be met with much positive or negative attention either way. If Martin wins at Illinois, fantastic. If he doesn’t, well, what better choice was there than getting a local to come back and try? Move on – again.

    And, really, Martin likely views the opportunity as golden after the Bears missed the NCAA Tournament this season. Illinois has a history of getting spurned during searches for a new basketball coach, and Martin probably won’t turn down the gig if it’s offered.

    California Golden Bears head coach Cuonzo Martin. Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    Let’s remember then-VCU coach Shaka Smart and then-Butler coach Brad Stevens wanted nothing to do with the Fighting Illini after Bruce Weber was fired five years ago. That’s how Groce landed the job after taking Ohio to the Sweet 16 and little success beyond that as a head coach.

    Athletic director Josh Whitman is new to the job, having only been in Champaign since last year. He made a splash with his football hire bringing in former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, and he reportedly tried to do so with basketball, offering San Antonio Spurs assistant and former NBA head coach Monty Williams a hefty salary to coach the Illini.

    That’s his first taste of getting spurned, much like his predecessors.

    “This is essentially a game of musical chairs, and we don’t want to be the person left standing when the music stops in terms of identifying our next coach,” Whitman said when announcing Groce’s firing. “We need to put ourselves in the right position to go out and start to move more aggressively to identify who that next coach might be.”

    He’ll surely call Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Dayton’s Archie Miller, two of the hottest names in college basketball who will meet in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Both politely will decline. They’re not leaving their current gigs for anything other than a high-major “destination job.”

    Illinois’ problem is that it can’t offer a “destination job.” It’s a stepping-stone. Just ask Bill Self.

    And that’s why Whitman will be forced to target Martin – a local who’s had moderate success – and act like he accomplished something when announcing the hire. Only he’ll be hurting inside after being rejected by the coaches he really wanted.

    Martin has made the NCAA Tournament twice in nine seasons as a head coach, spending three seasons each at Missouri State, Tennessee and Cal. He doesn’t get any bonus points for winning the CBI tournament, which Martin did at his first coaching stop. Or for his three NIT appearances, especially since those three characters illicit four-letter words from angry Illini fans.

    Bring me Kevin Keatts, the Rick Pitino protege whose 72 wins in three years at UNC-Wilmington are one more than the Seahawks had in the previous seven seasons combined before he arrived. Keatts has won the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title each season and is prepping for his second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

    How about Kermit Davis? He put Middle Tennessee on the map with last year’s shocking upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round, and has it heading back to the NCAA Tournament this year.

    But those hires aren’t as safe as Martin, and there’s a legitimate chance N.C. State or LSU or another high-major looking for a new coach will beat Illinois to the punch hiring them anyway. It is, unfortunately, the position the Illini are in, and the reason Martin might be the only decent choice left.

    If you listen closely, you can already hear the collective groan of the Illinois fan base. Hiring Martin will make it even more pronounced.

    MORE: Mid-Major Coaches Prepping For NCAA Tournament Auditions

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