Just when you think you’ve experienced it all, this here was entirely different.
Phil Martelli had been a head coach for 772 college basketball games at St. Joseph’s. He’d been an assistant before that on Hawk Hill, and for the last three seasons under Juwan Howard at Michigan. He’d finished a Wolverines game that Howard had been ejected from last March.
This now … entirely different.
“It messed me up, to be honest with you,” Martelli said Friday over the phone, referring to how he “tossed and turned” the night of Howard’s postgame altercation at Wisconsin Feb. 20, how surely a suspension was coming, which meant Martelli might be put in charge, which meant all sorts of things. He’d have to be the head coach, but this was Juwan Howard’s team. The other assistants are in charge of the offense and defense. What would it all add up to for him?
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“All you can do is be you,” his wife Judy told him that next morning, before Martelli found out officially, Howard would be suspended for the last five games of Michigan’s regular season, Martelli in charge for those five games.
Five massive games, a season on the line, the Wolverines on the NCAA bubble, with no cupcakes on the schedule, a preseason top-ten ranking a different memory, Michigan 14-11 overall and 8-7 in the Big Ten, Rutgers up next.
Martelli thought of little things.
“Like the hand signals that he uses during the games are his hand signals,” Martelli said of Howard. “The playbook has been put together by him and [assistant] Howard Eisley and it’s a thick, thick playbook. The way he runs practice. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just his.”
Martelli worked his way toward a plan. It would be Howard’s team, but he’d coach as himself.
“I don’t sit down [during a game],” Martelli said. “I don’t talk as much as Juwan talks during practice. I don’t use a whistle during practice.”
He is allowed to talk to Howard during the suspension, although the suspended coach is not to do any game-planning or practice-planning. They talk each day, mostly about the players. “The players are allowed to be in touch with him,” Martelli said. “He’s the head of the quote-unquote family.”
Martelli was never one to pick Joe Lunardi’s brain about the ins and outs of bracketology during their time together on Hawk Hill. He still doesn’t, Lunardi said Friday. “A ‘non’ superstition, no doubt.”
The fact is, if Michigan hadn’t won a couple of the five games without Howard, the Wolverines would have themselves a nice postseason waiting in the NIT. They’re not in the clear yet, but a victory over Rutgers on Feb. 23, first game after the Feb. 20 Wisconsin debacle, gave Michigan a little breathing room. Then there was a loss to Illinois. Which made a visit from Michigan State that much bigger.
Martelli and Tom Izzo have been close for years.
“It just brought back memories of Fran Dunphy,” Martelli said of facing Izzo. “That’s what it felt like. That’s what I texted Dunph.”
Michigan got that one. A little more breathing room. Then a loss Thursday to Iowa, coached by Fran McCaffery. How far back does Martelli go back with him?
“The first high school game when I was a coach,” he said, remembering his days as JV coach and assistant to Bud Gardler at Cardinal O’Hara. “The Palestra, December of 1976. Fran McCaffery was the star of the La Salle [High] team.”
Michigan isn’t in the NCAA tournament yet. As of Friday, Lunardi has the Wolverines avoiding the Dayton play-in games, but with one team to spare. Sunday’s game at Ohio State and a first-round Big Ten tournament game are all still huge.
“Nobody comes to me – do you think we have to win this game?” Martelli said of the players. “It never comes up. … You know the league is a wear and tear, and then the spotlight was really on the players.”
He meant after what went down at Wisconsin. It was the biggest story in college hoops nationally for at least that week.
“It was a really hard lesson for everybody involved,” Martelli said. “For us, for the players, for Wisconsin and their staff.”
You know everyone watching that game in Philadelphia or checking out instant viral replays was on the lookout for Martelli’s bald head.
“I was the first in line,” Martelli said of that now infamous handshake line. “I got all the way through the Wisconsin players, their coaches and support staff, their managers. I turned to go to our locker room. I heard the crowd noise before I saw anything.”
When he got to halfcourt, “there was jostling going on,” he said. “I was trying to use my voice to get people moved.”
He couldn’t get through, Martelli said, so he moved around the periphery of the scrum. Eventually, they all got to the locker room. There, the players dressed in one room, the assistants in another, Howard in another.
“I still didn’t know what had happened,” Martelli said. “I never saw any of it.”
Until a replay was shown on somebody’s phone. Howard’s roundhouse slap of a Wisconsin assistant was shown, and the events that brought that on, and the bedlam that followed.
By the time the suspension became official, it was time for practice. Martelli saw it this way: “What we’re going through is a fact, it’s not an excuse. So preparing for Rutgers, we couldn’t be in a split screen.”
Meaning, still sorting out the events at Wisconsin while preparing for Rutgers. “We couldn’t be spending two days on, where were you on the court?”
After games, Martelli said he is “short and quick” talking to players, as Howard is. “Our players take postgame recovery seriously.”
So the Iowa game, for instance, ended at about 11, Martelli was in and out of the locker room, then did postgame radio, then a segment for the television show Howard usually does. He got home to his condo at about 12:45, had a turkey burger, “probably laid down at about 3:15.” He got up around 5 a.m., he said, “get started on film.”
What’s Howard’s message been to him?
“It’s been really interesting,” Martelli said. “His central message to me has been gratitude. Thank you for doing this.”
The most jarring part isn’t seeing Martelli standing during a game. It’s that bright yellow pullover he wore for the Michigan State game.
“A little inside baseball,” Martelli said. “What we’ve worn for the last two years, Juwan picks that out each morning. He’ll send the picture. You match it all up.”
That’s not Martelli, in charge of fashion. So during the suspension, Wolverines assistant Chris Hunter has picked out the outfits. Martelli probably gets more texts about clothing than any game calls, he said.
If Martelli wasn’t ready to retire when he was let go at St. Joe’s, he somehow got what he wanted, getting right into the thick of things, a season on the line.
“Not sleeping well just comes with it,” he said.