The text exchanges and phone calls started soon after Phil Martelli was let go at St. Joseph’s. It wasn’t quite as if the entire coaching fraternity was taking “What should Phil do next?” as a collective project. But it wasn’t far off that.
As March gave way to April, which meant coaches were heading back on the road recruiting, Martelli made a point of calling coaching friends, the local coaches here, but also Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and John Calipari.
“If my name comes up — I’m not retired,’’ Martelli said he’d tell them.
He took his extended family, wife, children, grandchildren, to Disney World, celebrating his wife’s birthday. If that sent a message that Martelli was getting used to not coaching, it shouldn’t have.
“I made a pledge, no phone calls,’’ Martelli said of that trip. “I was able to do it.”
Back to Philly, he got a phone call, he said, from Calipari. “I want you to get off the phone,’’ Calipari told him. “Juwan Howard wants to talk to you," adding that Howard was going to interview at Michigan the next day.
That call wasn’t about hiring a staff. Howard was trying to get the job, figuring out what he needed to know. Calipari was putting him in touch with a network of college coaches.
“He wanted to have some ideas,’’ Martelli said. “Tuesday, he interviewed.”
Martelli’s mind got working. He called his buddy Geno Auriemma to see whether he could call Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who had been Auriemma’s AD at Connecticut — “to see if this is a real thing [Michigan interviewing Howard] or a perfunctory thing for a former player.”
Obviously, it was real. Howard got the job. A former Fab Five player was coming home. He had to build a staff.
“From Stan Van Gundy to Jeff Van Gundy to Steve Fisher, people are calling, letting me know Juwan is kind of vetting me,’’ Martelli said. “Then we went into the Memorial Day weekend. We had another great, great, great conversation.”
Since this was kind of a blind date, Martelli was making his own phone calls.
“People in the NBA are telling me he’s one of the top five guys in the whole league,’’ Martelli said. “Stan Van Gundy said, ‘I’m going to clinch this for you — he’s Jameer-like.”
Van Gundy had coached Jameer Nelson in Orlando. He knew what those words would mean to Nelson’s college coach.
This will be way different for Martelli. He’s been in charge of a college basketball program for a quarter of a century.
“I’ve had that conversation with Juwan,’’ Martelli said. “He wants to have conversations and debate, and, when we finish, it’s going to be his decision.”
What Martelli presumably brings to the table is a knowledge of how the job needs to be structured, what Howard, who has never been involved in college coaching, needs to do day-to-day as the head coach, what the rules even are.
“Recruiting to me is always about relationships,’’ Martelli said. “Whether I was getting this guy or that guy, that’s where it will continue. The extraordinary successes that John Beilein has had means there is groundwork laid.”
Beilein called the other day when he got wind that Martelli may be headed for Ann Arbor. Was there anything Martelli wanted to know? There wasn’t really. He knows this is a different league, literally. He’s ready to show up at his first recruiting event and say, “Where do the blue bloods sit?”
Another thing that will be different — Tom Izzo is the coach at the big rival.
“He texted me on the morning of the Final Four, getting ready [for Michigan State’s game], telling me how I was in his mind and in his heart,’’ Martelli said. “He’s a special, special guy. He’s just a legit guy.”
Martelli may have to leave that part out talking to Wolverines fans. But he’ll already go on about Howard, how he was blown away by Howard’s emotional introductory news conference.
“I saw him break down, those tears — this is my guy,’’ Martelli said.
The bigger question, was he Howard’s guy? The feedback he got back from Howard’s vetting was that there was a consistency to the answers. No red flags were thrown back at him.
Except maybe one. Martelli isn’t just a Philly guy, but a Philly lifer. Martelli said he was asked a couple of different ways about his family situation, uprooting to the Midwest.
“They wanted to know [at Michigan] that I wasn’t going to leave them standing at the altar,’’ he said, that it wouldn’t be too far to move in the end.
He had spoken of all sorts of possibilities with his wife Judy, he said. They’d even talked of him coaching for a season in Europe, that such a getaway for them might be worthwhile. (An outside opinion: Martelli needed something completely different, away from the shadow of Hawk Hill. This is certainly it.)