Cuonzo Martin soaks in the atmosphere as the crowd roars after the Bears beat Wichita State 69-64 for the MVC regular-season championship on Feb. 26, 2011. It was the largest crowd in Great Southern Bank Arena history, 11,077 attended.
Cuonzo Martin soaks in the atmosphere as the crowd roars after the Bears beat Wichita State 69-64 for the MVC regular-season championship on Feb. 26, 2011. It was the largest crowd in Great Southern Bank Arena history, 11,077 attended. (Photo by Missouri State Athletics)

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Missouri State’s men’s basketball team might not win a Missouri Valley Conference championship next season, but the Bears will lead the league in toughness.

Cuonzo Martin will demand it.

Toughness is the first word that immediately comes to mind when I’m asked about Martin, whom I covered during his first stint as Bears' coach from 2008-11. Missouri State confirmed on March 27 that Martin is returning to the school on a five-year contract.

Can you go home again?

I’ve seen mixed public reaction in the 48 hours after news broke that Martin and Missouri State were working toward a reunion. Many love it, some loathe it using the age-old cliche of “you can’t go home again.”

Why not? Martin has proven you can win a Missouri Valley Conference championship at Missouri State. Six other coaches since the Bears joined the Valley 34 years ago have failed to do so.

Yes, it’s a different world now than in 2011, with the transfer portal and roster upheaval changing how rosters are constructed. But Martin has recruiting connections all over the country. Don’t underestimate who he might convince to come to Springfield — or might convince to stay.

Damien Mayo Jr., the Bears’ tough-as-nails sophomore guard, would seem to be the perfect Martin-type of player. Same for sophomore forward N.J. Benson. I can hardly wait to see the roster assembly over the next few weeks.

Martin might embrace a longer stay this time around

Cuonzo Martin stands on the sidelines before a Missouri State Bears basketball game
Cuonzo Martin’s teams were 61-41 in three seasons at Missouri State from 2008-11, including a combined 50-21 record over the final two seasons. (Photo by Missouri State Athletics)

Since leaving Missouri State to quadruple his salary at Tennessee — on this very date in 2011 — Martin has taken teams to the NCAA Tournament at Tennessee, California and Missouri. He’s been there and done it at the major-conference level and might be ready to embrace a longer stay this time around at Missouri State.

He was fired by Missouri after the 2021-22 season and has been out of coaching for the last two seasons. Many likely view that as a negative, but I suspect Martin is a better coach than when he left here in 2011, learning from each experience along his journey.

For him to come out of retirement, trading the year-round warmth of Orlando, Florida, to move back to the Ozarks and take on a new challenge, is a sign of Martin’s thirst for competition. No surprise. Martin has been competitive his entire life, from escaping the mean streets of East St. Louis, Illinois, to overcoming bad knees to become a star at Purdue University to his greatest victory of all, whipping non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the midst of a professional basketball career.

Martin once told me when he got his cancer diagnosis at the age of 26 — after flying all night from Europe to Indianapolis, where the doctor coldly told him it was a life-threatening situation — he got on his knees after the doctor left the room. He asked God to let him live long enough to see his son Joshua, then four months old, graduate high school. Zo is still here and Joshua is now 26.

Former Bears loved playing for Martin

Martin’s life experiences rub off on his players. Those who played for him at Missouri State, despite some early practices in the fall of 2008 that had them heaving lunch into trash cans, love the man to this day.

Guard Adam Leonard, in an interview on JOCK 96.9 earlier this week, said he and teammates from the 2011 championship team, have remained in contact with Martin over the years.

“It’s been 13 years and he’s still in touch with all the players,” Leonard said. “Coach Martin, if you look up his past adversities on Google and all he’s been through, he brings that emotion to the floor and instills that in his players.

“His demeanor is really what gets the players ready to play, into the zone, into the game.”

“LET’S GO!” 2011 Missouri State starting center Will Creekmore said on the platform X of Martin’s impending return. “Only one man for the job. A natural born leader of men. Can’t wait to see @MoStateMBB back at the top of the Valley.”

And from Kyle Weems, the star of the 2011 title team who admittedly struggled in the early days of Martin’s first practices to become one of the best players in school history under the coach’s guidance: “The way he relates to his players while pushing them to their maximum potential is unmatched.

“He truly cares for his players and will have them playing together as one. I’m so forever grateful for my three years playing under him and I’m super excited for the future of the program.”

An intimidating presence with a softer side

A crowd watches Cuonzo Martin cut the net off a basketball goal after Missouri State won the Missouri Valley Conference championship in 2011
Missouri State averaged 7,595 fans during Cuonzo Martin’s third and final season as head coach, in 2010-11, the largest average since the arena opened in 2008-09. (Photo by Missouri State Athletics)

The 6-foot-5 Martin can be an intimidating presence, with his size and bass voice, but I thoroughly enjoy the softer side and low-key humor that shines once you get to know him. I busted my knee into a couple of hundred pieces after taking a spill on the ice just before Christmas in 2008, his first season at Missouri State, and showed up at practice a few weeks later with a walking cane.

Martin walked over just before practice began and complimented me on how sharp the hand-made, wooden cane looked. He laughed and said, “I knew some dudes in East St. Louis who used to use canes like that, for the fashion of it.”

Earlier, when I woke up in a daze in my hospital room after knee surgery, the phone rang. The low, growly voice on the other end identified himself and told me that the Bears basketball family was thinking of me.

“If anybody knows anything about overcoming bad knees, it’s me,” Martin said. “I know you can come back from this and we’ll see you back soon. If you need anything, you let me know.”

This was a couple of days before the Bears played host to a three-games-in-three-days, home-court tournament. Martin had better things to do than give a pep talk to a sports reporter, yet there he was, preaching to me about toughness.

That’s the kind of guy you’re getting as Missouri State’s “new” basketball coach. You can’t go home again? I think the program is pretty lucky that Martin is willing to run it back.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton