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Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Paul Lusk follows friend's path to MSU

By Diamond Leung
ESPN.com

The coaching carousel spun, and so did Paul Lusk's head. He wasn't just in a holding pattern before becoming the coach at Missouri State. For a whirlwind week in March, Lusk was in what he half-jokingly has called an emotional-wreck pattern.

Paul Lusk
After seven years at Purdue, Paul Lusk landed at Missouri State.

While Purdue coach Matt Painter was out of town on a Tuesday interviewing with Missouri, top assistant Lusk held down the fort in West Lafayette and momentarily allowed his mind to wander and wonder about his own possibilities. Might he also be headed to Missouri? Maybe he was a candidate to succeed Painter at Purdue. Would he stay with the Boilermakers if Painter stayed? Lusk was considering numerous head-coaching jobs as well.

"I was thinking about all those things somewhat, but once I got involved in this job, that was what I was focused on," Lusk said of Missouri State. "It was a good situation."

By Wednesday, Painter had agreed to a new contract at Purdue. On Thursday, Lusk interviewed with Missouri State in the morning and later that night reached an agreement to become a Division I head coach for the first time.

All along, the 39-year-old Lusk had been the school's first choice to succeed close friend Cuonzo Martin and take over a team coming off a Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title. Lusk held it together and things subsequently fell into place -- a familiar pattern he experienced as a player.

Lusk can still remember the exact date he broke both bones in his lower leg in his first start as a freshman for Iowa, and he recalls how the freak injury ultimately made him stronger. "It made me realize this thing could be taken from you in a hurry," he said.

After struggling to fully recover, a frustrated Lusk left Iowa mid-semester the following season and transferred to Southern Illinois. He now looks back at that decision as a "tremendous learning experience" and he ended up scoring 1,031 points and helping the Salukis to three straight NCAA tournament appearances.

And then there was the car accident that killed Iowa standout Chris Street, who was his friend and former roommate. Lusk gained perspective that influenced him then and later on as a coach.

"To see what happened with him made me realize, broken leg? You felt like that was the end of the world, but in the big picture, it's really not," said Lusk, who served as a pallbearer at the funeral and still remains in contact with Street's family 18 years later.

"That was a very, very tough thing to deal with. There's not a day that goes by that I still don't think about him. That had a major, major impact on my life. I think about all those things when you start working with these young kids."

In Martin, who left Missouri State after three seasons to coach at Tennessee, Lusk has a friend and a sounding board in the profession. The two go back a long way. They grew up near St. Louis playing Little League and got to know each other well after rooming together at the Nike All-American basketball camp in high school. Lusk reached out when Martin was diagnosed with cancer in 1997.

They ended up coaching at Purdue together under Gene Keady and then Painter, before Martin left for the Missouri State job in 2008 and Lusk replaced him as associate head coach.

Lusk, who played in high school for his father, an old-school disciplinarian, became more well-rounded coaching under Painter at Southern Illinois for a season and then at Purdue for another seven, when he helped turn the Boilermakers into perennial winners.

Paul Lusk
As a player in the Valley, Lusk helped lead SIU to three NCAA tournaments from 1993-95.

"I believe in toughness," Lusk said. "I believe in guys being fundamentally sound. It's part of being a coach, and you just can't scream at kids and browbeat them all day. You have to challenge kids and push them, but it's also a different time.

"Anyone that watches Purdue realizes Purdue is a tough, physical basketball team. Yet [Painter] is not a big screamer. He's fair with the players and makes them feel good about themselves."

Said Martin: "We were so aggressive, so high-strung, so intense. Matt taught us to be more even-keeled."

While Martin was at Missouri State, the two would communicate nearly every day, whether it was about X's and O's or how to handle coaching situations. So when Martin departed for Tennessee, Lusk understood the Bears program well enough to know he wanted the job.

He heard about the winning culture Martin had developed. He was familiar with the conference and the area. He had even received his master's degree from the school in 2000 while coaching at Missouri Southern State.

And as it turned out, Lusk was the school search committee's unanimous top choice to replace Martin, according to athletic director Kyle Moats, who received more than 80 inquiries about the job.

"They already had him on their radar before I even said anything," said Martin, who resigned on a Sunday and was replaced within the week. "The work was already done."

Missouri State finished last season 26-9 and won the school's first regular-season MVC title, but there is still a reachable goal to achieve. The Bears lost in the championship game of the conference tournament and remain in search of their first NCAA tournament bid since advancing to the Sweet 16 in 1999.

Lusk said it has been a smooth transition thus far because of his familiarity of the program through conversations with Martin, who didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare. Reigning league player of the year Kyle Weems, a 6-foot-6 forward who led the team in scoring and rebounding, is back for his senior season.

With 10 NCAA tournament appearances as a player and coach combined, Lusk hopes to instill a sense of urgency in the Bears so they won't be satisfied by previous success.

"The one thing I've tried to do is challenge the current team," he said. "Last year was great. That's not what we signed up to do.

"We didn't just sign up to win the Valley."

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.