COLUMBIA, Mo. — For Cuonzo Martin, even as he watched from 2,000 miles away in California, the 2015 protests on the University of Missouri campus had a personal connection.
Martin’s parents were born in St. Louis, and he was raised just across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois — two hours away from the campus in Columbia. Even when he attended and played basketball at Purdue, where his collegiate coaching career later began, Martin paid special attention to the Tigers.
He was raised on Norm Stewart, the longtime Missouri coach, and his head coaching career started down the road at Missouri State before he made his way to Tennessee and Cal.
That bond was why Martin left the Golden Bears in March after three seasons to join Missouri .
Yes, the proximity of his family near St. Louis was a factor in his desire to return home. But so was the feeling that he had a role to play in helping both the college and state recover from the fallout lingering from the protests two years ago with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over what they saw as indifference to racial issues.
“I think I owe it as a head coach to say around the country or to the state of Missouri, there was an incident that took place, a real incident, and we have to learn from it and continue to push forward,” Martin said. “There’s still residue from it, and that’s part of the growth. We have to talk about it.”
The residue Martin speaks of is evident in Columbia, and in more concrete ways than just the leftover tension that led to the departures of both the school’s president and chancellor in the wake of the protests. Missouri’s enrollment numbers have been in a steady decline since the protests, reaching the school’s lowest total this fall since 2008.
The school’s football and men’s basketball programs have declined, too, with both teams finishing at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in each of the last two seasons. Missouri’s football team has won three straight games but remains under .500 with a single SEC win with three games remaining.
In basketball, the last-place streak extends back three seasons and it cost coach Kim Anderson his job.
The 46-year-old Martin has done his part to lift the cloud and make the coaching transition as comfortable as possible for Missouri’s returning players. He holds repeated meetings with players in his office and talks of the importance of personal character over being a basketball player. He invited the team to his house to watch August’s boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.
Externally, Martin is counting on the platform he’s been given at Missouri to show the healing has begun — even if he plans to do so more with his actions than words.
“It doesn’t always have to be loud voice. Sometimes you can move behind the scenes and make change and to do your part,” Martin said. “If anything, (the protests) made me more excited to be there. I’m born and raised here, and often times, I feel like you have to do your part in life.”
Martin is guaranteed a rapt audience: His hiring was followed by the arrival of perhaps the top recruiting class in school history, one anchored by McDonald’s All-American Michael Porter Jr. Now, after an 8-24 record a year ago, Missouri begins the season just on the outside of the Top 25 — with expectations of a return to relevancy in both the SEC and nationally.
By now, the story is well known of how this class came together, how Washington’s firing of coach Lorenzo Romar in March along with Huskies assistant coach Michael Porter Sr. started a domino effect. Porter Jr. was committed to Washington after having moved to the Northwest for his senior season of high school.
Once his father was hired at Missouri, the 6-foot-10 forward followed. He not only joined his dad but two sisters, who were already members of the women’s basketball team that’s coached by his aunt, Robin Pingeton. Porter Jr.’s little brother, 6-foot-11 forward Jontay, reclassified and skipped what would have been his senior year of high school to join his brother and father, too.
Tigers senior Jordan Barnett was part of last season’s team in his first season after transferring from Texas. Before that, the St. Louis native grew up watching Tigers basketball and traveled to countless games in Mizzou Arena. He remembers the 2011-12 season when the school was upset as a No. 2 seed by Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament.
For Barnett, the protests had no bearing on his decision to transfer to the school of his youth. He is, however, well aware of the impact they had on the school — just as he’s reveling in the sudden surge in excitement following the arrival of Martin, Porter Jr. and company.
Just this week, Missouri announced that public season tickets have sold out ahead of the Tigers’ opener against Iowa State on Friday night. The total number sold, 9,572, is an almost 4,000-ticket increase over last season’s total.
“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet,” Barnett said of the excitement. “I just can’t wait to see how all of this shakes out. I’m fairly confident that we’ll be really good, and I just can’t wait to get started.”
Like Barnett, Martin is eager to start what feels like a season of promise.
And after a career that’s seen a series of starts and stops at his other schools, he’s been abundantly clear that he’s finally home for as long as Missouri will have him.
“We have to talk about (the past), but I want everybody to know from my standpoint, I’m all in because I’m a part of it,” Martin said. “Whatever took place then, I’m a part of it now, and I think the biggest key is to talk about it.”