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Cuonzo Martin, a native of East St. Louis, has left Cal and agreed to a seven-year deal with the Missouri Tigers.

March 15, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo, --- Take it from one who knows.

Missouri fans are going to love Cuonzo Martin.

No, not from me. Hardly. It's the gentleman they call the Godfather of St. Louis Basketball, Earl Austin Jr.

Austin's career in basketball parallels that of Martin's in time --- both have been at it for about 30 years. And both have been very good at what they do --- Martin as an accomplished player and coach, Austin as an accomplished student of the game who has an uncanny knack for spotting talent at an early age.

If there's a kid bouncing a basketball somewhere in St. Louis, chances are, Earl's there. From youngsters in AAU Basketball to serving as radio analyst the last 26 years for Saint Louis Billikens basketball, Earl's there.

He might know as much about basketball as James Naismith, Red Auerbach and Mike Krzyzewski.


So when he says that Jim Sterk and the Tigers have hit a home run with this hire, believe it.

"I love the hire," Austin told me Wednesday evening. "He's a special person ... he's successful because he does it through hard work and integrity and a no-nonsense approach to winning.

"In this day and age, when everybody likes the flash and the shiny stuff, Cuonzo is old school."

Martin announced his resignation from the University of California on Wednesday afternoon after three years with the Bears. It didn't take long for Sterk, Missouri's first-year athletic director, to make his move, as it's been reported that Martin has agreed to a seven-year deal worth $21 million.

Martin, 45, is a native of East St. Louis where as a player he won three Illinois state championships at Lincoln High, two of those alongside future Notre Dame star and 11-year NBA veteran, LaPhonso Ellis. 

"He was a special player," Austin, 51, said of Martin, who's been a good friend since those high school days. "He had such a good work ethic. He was a talented player with no frills --- he scored, rebounded and dominated games without a lot of flash."

The 6-6, 215-pound Martin then had a distinguished college career at Purdue alongside another star, Glenn Robinson, winning three Big Ten championships and advancing to the Elite Eight Martin's junior year.

He was selected in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks, but only played in seven games in his career --- a career that was derailed by a battle with cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

It was a battle he won against tough odds --- odds that one doctor said were comparable to Shaq's free throw percentage.

If you needed proof of Martin's toughness and that he's a fighter, there it is.

"He really is," said Austin, "He's a good man, he's a family man, he's just a nice person."

After playing for Gene Keady at Purdue, he joined Keady's staff and served as an assistant for eight years, the last two as associate head coach. Martin was then head coach at Missouri State, where he won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship in his third and final season, and he twice took the Bears to the NIT.

Martin's next stop was another three-year stint, this one at Tennessee, where he directed the Vols to the Sweet 16 his final season, before coaching Cal for three years and taking the Bears to the NCAA Tournament last year.

The Bears went 21-13 this season and lost in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night. His Cal record was 62-39 and his overall mark is 186-121 in nine seasons.

Martin has certainly established a pattern in his career --- three years, three years, three years. Now, he's agreed to a seven-year deal with Missouri, a deal that will vault him into the Top 12 of the highest-paid coaches in the country.

But will he stay the course?

"He's a Midwestern guy and I think this is a place where he can hang around for a while, if he has success," said Austin, who helps run Prep Hoops, a comprehensive recruiting website that covers 25 states. "Considering Illinois was open at the same time, everybody around here thought that would be the more likely destination job for him.

"But Missouri made the move."

Martin takes over for Kim Anderson, who was fired after three dismal seasons with the Tigers. Austin came to Anderson's defense.

"The Titanic," Austin said, "had already hit the iceberg when he got there."

Also Wednesday, the University of Washington fired Lorenzo Romar, who was the main reason ---probably the only reason --- the scintillating and vastly talented Porter brothers, Michael and Jontay, left Columbia, moved to Seattle and committed Washington.

Romar had named their dad, Michael Sr. an assistant coach last year. But now, and according to reports by ESPN, Michael Sr. is returning to Columbia to join Martin's staff. That would certainly seem to put the Tigers in play for the 6-9 Michael Jr., who's set to graduate this spring, and the 6-10 Jontay, who's a junior.

Michael Jr. tweeted Wednesday about Romar's firing: Loved this coaching staff and couldn't wait to start something special next year ... this hurts.

The tweet ended with a big frowny face.

What a Wednesday. For the love of Truman, how things have changed --- as has the optimism and entire outlook for this basketball program.

Godfather of St. Louis Basketball
'loves' Mizzou's hiring of Martin

Loeffler's Link