Another era of Big 5 basketball is ending. A big, boisterous era. Phil Martelli, head coach of the St. Joseph’s Hawks since 1995, has been fired, according to a source who said Martelli was informed of the decision Monday.
St. Joe’s announced the decision later Tuesday morning. According to several sources, the team was informed in several meetings Tuesday morning, first with Martelli, then with administrators.
This is a big move on Hawk Hill, considering Martelli was the face of the school. In a phone interview, athletic director Jill Bodensteiner said she made the decision mutually with St. Joseph’s president Mark C. Reed.
“Recommended by me, approved by him,'' Bodensteiner said. “This was anguishing, unequivocally the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. But I’m owning it.”
A source said Martelli had several years left on his contract. Martelli has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Bodensteiner said that after she was hired last June — coming from Notre Dame, where she was a senior athletic administrator — to replace longtime athletic director Don DiJulia, she spent much of the year evaluating all aspects of the department. “A particular amount of time was spent evaluating” the men’s basketball team, she said, including traveling with the team, meeting with recruits.
“I know it sounds corny, but I’m all about the student-athlete experience,'' Bodensteiner said. “At the end of the day, are we delivering on that promise?”
She went on to say she has “every respect” for Martelli and his staff.
"I can tell you I was attracted by this job in large part based on what I knew about Phil Martelli,'' Bodensteiner said. "Just to put that in perspective: Literally, as a man, as a human being, as a leader, as a philanthropist, a community spokesperson, as the biggest driver in crushing cancer I’ve ever met in my life, I put the man on a pedestal. That was part of the anguish.”
Asked whether there were incidents away from the court that factored in, Bodensteiner said: “I do want to make it really unequivocal: There were no incidents of any kind. There was not something that happened. Phil is a man of incredible integrity.”
Martelli, who will turn 65 in August, was the national coach of the year in 2004 after leading the Hawks to an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. The Hawks reached the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament but have had three straight losing seasons since. He coached the Hawks in the NCAA Tournament seven times.
His tenure went beyond X’s and O′s. Martelli and Fran Dunphy, finishing out his own last season at Temple, spearheaded local and national Coaches vs. Cancer efforts, raising millions. Even away from Hawk Hill, Martelli long ago had become one of the most recognizable sports figures in the city, known for his quick wit and tell-it-like-it-is ways.
The Hawks team led by future NBA players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West was the high point of Martelli’s tenure, as Nelson was named national player of the year in 2004 and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A St. Joe’s appearance in that year’s Final Four came down to a made jump shot by Oklahoma State at one end of the court at the Meadowlands and a missed one by the Hawks at the other end.
There were other high points. St. Joe’s reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in Martelli’s second season as head coach in 1996-97. More recently, the Hawks won Atlantic 10 titles in 2014 and 2016, and experienced near misses in those NCAA Tournaments, losing in overtime to eventual national champion Connecticut in the 2014 first round, then losing a battle with top seed Oregon in the 2016 season.
This season was a disappointment. After two straight injury-riddled, losing seasons, the Hawks were picked to finish second in the A-10, but that turned out not to be, as the Hawks finished 6-12 in the league, tied for 10th, and 14-19 overall after a second-round exit in the A-10 Tournament.
Villanova coach Jay Wright was surprised at the move.
“It was shocking. It’s sad, really sad," Wright said by telephone before the Wildcats boarded their flight to Hartford, Conn., where they are set to begin defense of their national championship on Thursday against St. Mary’s.
“I really think he’s a Philadelphia institution, I really believe it. He’s bigger than St. Joe’s. He’s with Fran in Coaches vs. Cancer, he’s the Big 5, he’s Philadelphia basketball.
“He was president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He’s respected across the country. He represents Philadelphia basketball to everybody across the country. I think people across the country think of Philadelphia basketball, think of the Big 5, think of Fran and Phil, and they’re both loved and respected.”
Wright added: "When you play against him, you want to kill him. But when it’s over, nobody else can say anything bad about him, or you want him to beat everybody else. It’s really unique.”
Asked about the process going forward, Bodensteiner said: “I’m spending today as I should, with the student-athletes, with staff, managers, support staff. Everyone is having their time with me. This is really hard. I’m worried about my people here now.”
She knows the process of finding a new coach has to happen quickly.
"I think this is an incredible job, in large part thanks to Phil,'' Bodensteiner said.
Staff writer Joe Juliano contributed to this story.