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Martelli poised to make Hawk history

IF YOU ONLY HAVE been half paying attention through the years, you might think Phil Martelli is one-dimensional, the funny man who calls in to WIP who also happens to coach basketball. You would be wrong.

Phil Martelli is set to break the nearly 60-year-old St. Joe's basketball record for wins tonight. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
Phil Martelli is set to break the nearly 60-year-old St. Joe's basketball record for wins tonight. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)Read more

IF YOU ONLY HAVE been half paying attention through the years, you might think Phil Martelli is one-dimensional, the funny man who calls in to WIP who also happens to coach basketball. You would be wrong.

Martelli, 55, can certainly be funny. He can also be introspective, charitable, calculating and competitive. He is anything but one-dimensional.

He remembers everything, which is good and bad. He can be charming. He can be cunning. He can motivate his players. He can irritate his players.

More than anything, Martelli is human. He does not evoke neutrality. He is a stream-of-consciousness talker without a filter. He is what we say we want in a coach or athlete unless that person actually says something interesting or controversial. Then, we attack.

Coaching is 24/7. You can't understand unless you live it.

"This is my life," Martelli says. "My family is next. It's not my family first. I think that's wrong."

That is true of just about every coach. It is just that few will say it.

Martelli's father is at every practice. His wife, Judy, and daughter, Elizabeth, are at every home game. Sons Jimmy (Rutgers) and Phil Jr. (Delaware) are assistant coaches. It is hard to know where basketball ends and family begins, because they are one and the same.

"Every memory I have involves the game of basketball or a team he was coaching," Phil Jr. says.

Judy played for those Immaculata teams that came to life in Tim Chambers' movie, "The Mighty Macs."

"I remember growing up in the gym," Jimmy says. "I don't remember anything else. Even when he came to my high school games, I realized he was watching Eddie Griffin or somebody from Neumann. He wasn't there to see me."

As Martelli gets set to break (barring a major upset) the nearly 60-year-old school record for wins tonight at Hagan Arena against Morgan State, the Saint Joseph's University coach is in the process of reinventing his career for a second time.

This is Martelli's 17th year in the only job he ever wanted. It is forever from that July day in 1995 when he sat in his car in Valley Forge Park, waiting for the call he was not sure would ever come, to last week when he sat at a long table in a conference room next to his vast office - the table is longer than the old office he used to occupy on the other side of the basketball court.

The office is part of the plush Ramsay Basketball Center, which is not something Martelli or anybody else imagined when, after 10 years as a Hawks assistant, his first season as head coach began in 1995. The old Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse has become the modern Hagan Arena. The on-court success made the radical infrastructure upgrade possible. Only the coach has stayed the same.

On his first day as head coach, the man who hired him as an assistant, the late, great Jim Boyle walked in, shook Martelli's hand, gave him a little hug and said, "I hope you're here long enough to lose 100 games."

Martelli had to think that through. "Bo" always saw things through a unique lens. He knew that if a coach was 50-75, he was never getting to 100 losses. Martelli has been around long enough to lose 212 games.

Bill Ferguson last coached on Hawk Hill in 1953, 4 years after the Fieldhouse opened and a year before Martelli was born. His record was 309-208. Martelli's is 309-212. Hawks legend Dr. Jack Ramsay played for Ferguson. It is through him that Martelli knows the man whose record he is about to break.

"Having a chance to meet Dr. Jack, and Dr. Jack was always talking about his coach, so I had an idea," Martelli said.

He was "frozen" that day he got the job and does not know why he ended up in Valley Forge Park, reading the Daily News.

Then, he got the call.

"I was there more than an hour and less than 2 hours," Martelli says.

He has been at St. Joe's half his life now. When he took the head-coaching job, he didn't imagine what it might become. Who knew?

"Not me. If somebody said to me what can this become, I really never had that kind of vision, plan, dream. I knew that the next day I wanted to be great at whatever it was I was doing."

Martelli's first season, the Hawks played in the NIT championship game. The next season, they won the Atlantic 10 and made the Sweet 16.

Martelli's predecessor, John Griffin, who had nothing but bad luck with injuries, said he did not realize he was passing the baton to Carl Lewis.

On his way to glory, Martelli went 36-51 the next three seasons. Then, he and his staff got there first on that point guard from Chester. Four seasons, a Sports Illustrated cover, 98 wins, a player of the year and coach of the year award, a No. 1 ranking and a 27-0 regular season later, St. Joe's seemed poised to become a major player - unless you really understood how college basketball works today.

Jameer Nelson comes along once in a lifetime. Nobody knew Delonte West would be that good. Nelson's game attracted so much of the talent that came after him. It was not called the "Miracle on 54th Street" for nothing.

If West had not left a year early for the NBA, the Hawks would have been an NCAA lock in 2005. Instead, changing the way they played in midseason, they won an improbable A-10 regular-season title and lost close in the league championship game. They lost on a buzzer-beater in the NIT championship game.

If Dwayne Jones had not left a year early for the NBA, SJU was probably an NCAA team in 2006. Instead, it was the NIT again after an absolutely heartbreaking loss in the A-10 title game to Xavier.

In the five seasons after Nelson/West, St. Joe's won 99 games, played in three A-10 title games, two NITs and one NCAA (2008). It was not 27-0, but it was competitive. Then, it wasn't.

After Ahmad Nivins graduated in 2009, it all came crashing down, first 11-20 and then, after a complete makeover and an influx of young players with potential, 11-22. The talent simply was not there the first season, not enough experience the next.

St. Joe's is not Kentucky or Duke or anything close. The Hawks can't sustain personnel losses and win 25 games. They can't come close on winners such as Temple's Lavoy Allen and keep winning. They can't almost take West Virginia star DeSean Butler and then not take him.

What also happened is that St. Joe's reached outside its recruiting comfort zone and found out it was still St. Joe's, playing in an off-Broadway league and a small gym.

"We went after 'A,' " Martelli says. "We thought we had the cachet. We were a national story at that time."

So, they went after players they never would have gone after before. And did not get them. They did not have a fallback position. You can work for 2 or 3 years on one player, establish a great relationship and still finish second.

"Guilty as charged," Martelli says. "We ignore our surroundings, but not everybody was ignoring our surroundings."

The coach's schedule had not changed.

"It wasn't like I went to 47 banquets and one high school game," Martelli says. "It was still the insane schedule."

Now, here he is again, with a 9-3 team that has no seniors, a team with the nation's leading shot blocker, a 1,000-point scorer, one of the country's best three-point shooters, an eight-man rotation that fits together perfectly, perhaps starting a second serious run after even some of his own fans were wondering whether it was over.

"This last 2 years has been more daunting," Martelli says of the second rebuild.

The initial success hadn't been built "so high." There wasn't this "explosion of social media" and "instant" analysis.

"We really were a nice, little story," Martelli says. "We had skyrocketed, but not too high in the sky."

All that would have gotten them higher in 2004 was a Final Four and/or a national championship.

"It was bigger than big," Martelli says.

More recently, he felt like: "I, with the program on my back, went up on this high dive that you see in the Olympics, jumped off and looked down and there was no water in the pool. All the way down, you just have this feeling of, 'How do I change this, how do I stop this, how do I hit the pause button?' "

Now, he wants to hit the play button again. This team is good, perhaps on its way to very good.

"I don't know what it could be, but I know one thing, it's going to end up on this wall," Martelli says, pointing to pictures of some of his best teams.

Recruiting is often hard-luck stories. Occasionally, it is just being in the right place at the right time. Look, the coach says, how this team was formed.

Leading scorer Tay Jones is not at St. Joe's if former Hawk Harold Rasul is not one of his high school coaches in Ohio. No way Langston Galloway comes from Baton Rouge, La., if his uncle is not Hawks assistant Geoff Arnold.

Ronald Roberts signed with St. John's. When Red Storm coach Norm Roberts was fired, Ron changed to his second choice. When Hofstra coach Tom Pecora took the Fordham job, Halil Kanacevic decided to transfer.

St. Joe's got C.J. Aiken the old-fashioned way. Martelli and assistant Dave Duda developed a relationship with him and his family when C.J was in ninth grade.

Getting players is sometimes providential, but always hard work.

"I never had a doubt that they could get it back," Phil Jr. says. "I know how hard he works. I know how hard [the staff] works."

Even when they were losing last season, Martelli promised his team would win this season.

"I think he almost enjoys the challenge of proving people wrong again," Jimmy says.

But that challenge comes with a price.

"I get physically tired," Martelli says. "That can get to me. It's like the blessing and the curse. There are a lot of days I can be c'est la vie."

But, other days, he worries about perceived slights. Something better ignored becomes important. A few years ago, he stopped looking at referee assignments because he would agonize over something that happened years before.

"My flaws on a basketball court are [that] I can't let a call go," Martelli says.

Off the court?

"I have to do a better job in my own life of saying no sometimes," he says. "I overbook. I overstretch at times."

Bottom line, "It's coach my current team, recruit my future teams, represent the university and then, sadly, fourth, it's my family."

Trying to separate his job from his family is impossible, because they really are the same thing.

And there is this overriding concern.

"There is always a tiny voice in my head on a daily basis to remember how powerful my touch is with each of the kids on this team," Martelli says. "Some days, I miss it. I get caught up in this film, that schedule, this practice. I always have to hear that voice in my head, 'Touch them, touch them.' "

From the moment he became the coach, Martelli opened the program up wide. Practices are open to anybody. You want to walk in off the street; you are welcome. You want to watch tape, ride the bus, hang out in the locker room, no problem. The coach does that so everybody can feel his program. He also does it because he wants it to get noticed. It has a downside.

"The openness has allowed people to come with more venom, to feel more comfortable in saying whatever [they] want," Martelli says. "One of my values is to be open, to be transparent, to be inclusive. I don't want to tiptoe around people."

By being out there at community events, on the radio, on television, Martelli has exposed himself. He is emotional. He has said stupid things to officials and fans at games. He has held grudges he really didn't need to hold. He sometimes sees ghosts that are not there.

He also can be a delight. His work with Coaches vs. Cancer is unwavering. If you ask him to speak at an event, he will speak. And when you hear him speak, you generally don't forget it. He spreads himself thin, because he cares.

He knows his critics think he does not work hard enough on coaching, because he is out there living. They have never been in the gym with him or stayed up for any all-nighters with him.

"In practice at a meeting, I never saw him joke," says John Gallagher, the Hartford coach who played for some of Martelli's first teams. "I've coached with and played for a lot of guys. He's the least of the jokesters."

The serious basketball coach is 40 minutes from win No. 310.

"He'll downplay it, but I think it's special, because it's the place he always wanted to be," Phil Jr. says.

And it's the job he always wanted.

"Every job is stressful," Jimmy says. "If somebody does not get the sale, it doesn't end up in the paper. If you don't win the game, it's in the paper. It can also be a great thing when you get 310."

When a team loses 42 games in two seasons after so much success, it is only natural to wonder.

"You're concerned, because you care about him, but if there's someone who's going to turn it, it's going to be him," Gallagher says.

It has been a success, Gallagher says, because of a "system based on we first, not me first."