NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Phil Cofer’s father Mike played football at the University of Tennessee. His mother Reba signed to play basketball with the Volunteers, too.
And, had things gone just a little bit differently, Cofer would have spent his college basketball career wearing orange and white.
While Cofer is pleased with the path he instead took, the Florida State senior will get a brief look at the road not traveled when he and the Seminoles take on Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday night here in Nashville.
“I’ve got a few family members up there. My dad is from Knoxville, and it’s not too far from there,” Cofer said. “It’s going to be cool playing up there (in Tennessee).”
But Cofer’s connections to Friday night’s game go deeper than geography.
While growing up in Fayetteville, Ga., near Atlanta, Cofer developed a strong bond with then-Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. He verbally committed to Martin’s Tennessee program as a high school junior, held strong in that commitment for the next year and then signed a letter of intent with the Volunteers the November before he graduated.
“I was probably talking to him all the time,” Cofer said. “Just like a second father.”
Cofer thought his plans were set. But that changed in April 2014 when, amidst pressure from Tennessee and its fans, Martin took the head coaching job at California.
Cofer suddenly didn’t know what was next, but he knew he didn’t want to move to California. And he knew he didn’t want to be at Tennessee without the coach who recruited him there.
A few days after Martin’s departure, Tennessee granted Cofer and several of his fellow incoming freshmen a release from their scholarships.
Not much later, after rekindling a previous relationship with FSU assistant Charlton Young, Cofer found a new home in Tallahassee.
He verbally committed the Seminoles on May 10, 2014, signed with them a week later and, during the four years that followed, became a valued member of the program as it built toward back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
And while Cofer has emerged as a leader on this young FSU team, he still carries a piece of his Tennessee history with him.
When he and his would-be classmates at Tennessee were granted their release, they all agreed that, no matter where they ended up, they would all wear the same jersey number – No. 0 – as a nod to each other.
Cofer held up his end of the bargain. As did Larry Austin Jr. at Xavier, Jordan Cornish at Tulane and Duby Okeke at Nebraska.
“We still wanted to stay a part of each other,” Cofer said.
In Tallahassee, Cofer is enjoying the finest year of his career.
Despite contending with injuries during his sophomore and junior years, as a senior Cofer has started all 31 games, is second on the team in scoring (13.1 points per game) and leads the Seminoles in 3-point field goal percentage (39.5).
“There was just a little small crack there (in Cofer’s recruitment) that we tried to jump through,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “And we’re very fortunate to have Phil as a part of our program. He’s a true Seminole at heart.”
Martin, meanwhile, spent three years at Cal and guided the Golden Bears to one NCAA tournament and one NIT appearance before returning to the Southeastern Conference to take over a fledgling Missouri program.
In his first year there, Martin has guided the Tigers to a 20-12 record and their first NCAA tournament appearance in five years, and he has a chance to deliver Missouri its first tournament win since 2010.
Standing in his way will be Cofer and the Seminoles.
While he and Martin don’t speak as often as they used to, Cofer said that the two have maintained a positive relationship over the years, and that he’s looking forward to seeing a familiar face on the opposing sideline come Friday night.
“It’s crazy to be playing against him,” Cofer said. “Cuonzo, with his character and how he approached me, he just did the right thing. … I think it’s going to be pretty cool to be able to see him again.”