Their basketball coaching journeys are forever bonded by St. Joseph’s ‘Bench Mob’ days | Mike Jensen
Two decades since they pumped up the Hawks from the bench, Phil Martelli Jr., Mike Farrelly, and Bob Hughes are basketball coaching lifers. And their St. Joe’s family is never far away.
The morning after, Mike Farrelly got a phone call from his buddy Phil, the best man at his wedding. He couldn’t take the call. They’d already texted the night before. He’d get back to him. Then Phil called again.
“Now I’m worried,” Farrelly said, so he answered the phone.
The night before, Farrelly had coached a college basketball game and won it. Top assistant to Joe Mihalich at two places, Farrelly is now the acting head coach at Hofstra while Mihalich is on medical leave. That victory counted as Farrelly’s first as a head coach. His phone was blowing up. But why was Phil calling back?
“I’m coaching tonight, too,” Phil Martelli Jr. told Farrelly when he answered. “Now that you’ve got one win, what advice do you have for me?”
Martelli’s boss at Bryant, head coach Jared Grasso, had a backache acting up and wasn’t making the trip to New Hampshire. That’s how a pair of former St. Joseph’s Hawks walk-ons for the team Phil’s dad coached, class of 2003, ended up getting their first college W’s a night apart, after Bryant beat New Hampshire in Martelli’s one-game stint in charge.
Their home bases may be Long Island and Rhode Island now, but this is a story rooted on Hawk Hill.
“Sophomore year, I made the team as a walk-on,” Farrelly said. “He was already on the team. He must have known the coach or something. … We weren’t boys [going in], but two hours a night sitting next to each other — by the end of the year …”
“We were the original Bench Mob,” Martelli said. “We dubbed ourselves that in 2001, before it became a thing. It started with me and him.”
There were other members, but some graduated, and some actually moved on to the court, like John Bryant and Pat Carroll. “Guys kind of trickled in and out,” Martelli said.
Both lefties, they had a go-to celebration move, half high five, half fist bump.
“A little bit of trash talk from our cozy spot on the end of the bench to opposing players,” Martelli said. “A lot of pumping guys up, being that moral support. We were a bundle of energy down there, kneeling, clutching towels.”
Bob Hughes, head coach at Division III Rosemont, was around then, too, as a Hawks manager. Hughes ended up living with Farrelly in Manayunk the year after both graduated, and they traveled together as recent graduates, getting to as many 2003-04 Hawks games as possible, as Jameer Nelson and the rest took the city on a ride.
Hughes remembers ending up in a lot of the same classes with Farrelly, then being put together for a senior year business project. Hughes recently tweeted about it: “This project seems silly now, but let me tell you at the time it was a BIG DEAL.”
Three others on the project showed so little interest, Hughes can’t picture their faces. But Farrelly was a whirlwind. “Sheer will,” Hughes said. “Late-night trips to Kinko’s. We got it done. … Even back in the fall of 2002, it was evident he was the hardest worker.”
Farrelly was going into business and started down the road getting a job in financial services. Martelli? He was always going to get into the family business. A marketing major, but a future coach.
That place in Manayunk?
“I might have been driving a limo at that point between jobs,” said Hughes, who made his own inroads in all sorts of ways. “We couldn’t afford heat.”
Winter nights were for hoops. Like the night Kobe Bryant put up 81 points for the Lakers on Jan. 22, 2006.
“We both had like four blankets on us,” Hughes remembers. “We both wanted to go to bed.”
But Kobe was really doing his thing.
“First blanket comes off … the second blanket comes off,” Hughes said. “By the end, we were jumping up and down. Two young kids dreaming about working in the game, neither one of us working in the game then.”
When Phil Martelli Sr. asked Farrelly to be Hawks JV coach, he was working for American Express Financial Advisors, living with John Bryant. The job offer came with zero dollars attached, but Martelli told him to practice whenever he wanted; if it was 10 o’clock at night, that was fine. He took it. Hughes was his assistant, then he took the team for two seasons.
All these guys made all sorts of stops. In addition to the elder Martelli and the importance of the Hoop Group as a launching pad, Mihalich has been a huge bridge for the younger Martelli and then Farrelly. At one point, the younger Martelli had just left Mihalich’s Niagara staff for a job at Delaware. He was pitching Farrelly as a replacement, but someone else got the job. That same offseason, there was another opening.
“Your relationships automatically change with the players, and the assistants, now technically you’re their boss,” Farrelly said. “You need to be much more intentional with your motivation and leading a practice.”
“Your relationships automatically change with the players, and the assistants, now technically you’re their boss. You need to be much more intentional with your motivation and leading a practice.”
Not just X’s and O’s. “What messages do you need to send?”
Up in New England, Martelli just had the one-game gig, his first time as a head coach since either the Sonny Hill League or the Narberth League when he was in school. But he talked about Grasso giving him full autonomy over the defense, letting him put his stamp on the game plan.
“One of the things Mike said, and I’m pretty big on this, to begin with, ‘Kind of plan out your substitutions,’ " Martelli said, explaining that a couple of younger players hadn’t played in the previous game, a season-opening (and eye-opening) one-point loss for Bryant at Syracuse. He wanted to make sure those players got in at New Hampshire.
“I went through the whole first half, kind of scripted that,” Martelli said. “I gave it to one of the other assistants, told him to stay in my ear about it.”
For years, Martelli said, he’s approached a game like he’s the coach, making notes to himself, thinking through the what-ifs. That’s the best value, he said, for any assistant.
Within their moral support, these guys know how to jab. Martelli said in his best man’s speech at Farrelly’s wedding, he pointed out to his buddy’s bride, “I hope you know what you’re getting into. Anybody who has ever played basketball with Mike knows he’s an incredibly selfish person. Just watching him jack up shots.”
In addition to calling Farrelly to tell him that he’d be coaching, Martelli obviously called his father, now a Michigan assistant coach. “Same advice,” the younger Martelli said. “You’re ready, you’re prepared. Be yourself.”
Dad had another question: Who did the scouting report? Phil had been in charge of that, so he knew New Hampshire going in.
“I felt oddly calm through the whole thing,” Martelli said of that night.
They mentioned the former manager, Hughes, given the nickname Barney by the elder Martelli when he was a Hawks manager, and it’s stuck.
“He deserves the most credit because he has literally put in all the blood, all the sweat, all the tears,” Farrelly said of Hughes reaching the NCAA DIII Tournament with Rosemont.
Many of their conversations try to continue looking off in the distance. When you win your first one within 24 hours of each other, 17 years after you were last teammates, what better way to show you can’t predict much, just prepare?
“What’s the thing we have to be ready for?” Farrelly said. “That we’re not thinking about because we’re winning?”
This, they already know: The phone rings, you can wait and call back. It rings again, you pick it up right away.