What were the last two seasons like for St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli? Two straight 11-win seasons after 10 straight winning ones. Doubts creeping in - including in Martelli's own head - about whether the Hawks could rebound. Once Martelli was national coach of the year, but how long ago was that?
"I was my own toughest critic, saying, 'This isn't working,' " Martelli said this week while preparing for Saturday's "Holy War" vs. Villanova at Hagan Arena. "Helpless wouldn't be the right word. Hopeless wouldn't be the right word. But bordering on helpless and hopeless. And saying . . . How am going to shake this? How am I going to shake myself out of this? How am I going to shake the program out of this? . . . This program had been built on hope, a 'we're going to defy the odds' kind of thing. And here we weren't defying the odds."
Nobody was holding any telethons for Martelli's emotions. He is well-compensated to lead the Hawks. It's his job to right the ship or take the heat. In his daily routine, it wasn't so much that Martelli was getting accosted by angry Hawks fans, more like he saw the lack of eye contact at the dry cleaners or in the Wawa. Nobody knew what to say.
"I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, but when I'm walking in here and nobody's making eye contact, everybody's head's down, you could see the hurt, like in my secretary's eyes," Martelli said. "Going home, no one wanted to talk about a game, or talk about a player. It would be like any project that anybody out there enters into, and it's not working. And emotionally it's a grind; mentally, it's a grind; physically, it's a grind."
No doubt Martelli is more comfortable talking about all this because eye contact has been restored. Nobody knows exactly how 2011-12 will turn out - that's kind of what makes things so interesting on Hawk Hill right now - but the ship has been righted. The Hawks are playing sound ball again, with a 7-3 record including a win over a ranked Creighton team, despite having only one junior and no seniors among the top eight in the St. Joseph's rotation.
So this is an interesting time to ask Martelli the "what was it like" questions. Last season, he was more likely to say, "Fine," boxing you out from his emotions. And he knew other questions were out there, especially among Hawks fans - why was Martelli on the radio or at some civic event? Didn't he know his own record?
"For people not to grasp, it's 7:10 in the morning on a Friday - do they know if I was up all night watching film?" Martelli said. "And many people that would ask me to help in a charitable or a school endeavor, now say, too much is spent there. That would get to me."
Those issues are inevitable by-products of losing. Baseball players hitting .220 get lambasted for talking too much. Who cares what any Eagles think about world affairs right now? The only bottom line that counted: Could Martelli get the Hawks winning again?
There were certain coaching methods he had always repeated, Martelli said. How he presents a scouting report, how a practice is structured the day before a game, how he debriefs after a game. In his own mind, he went back and forth. Those methods worked. Look at these teams with their photos on the wall, all those postseason teams, it had worked. But he couldn't deny it wasn't working. What was he missing?
There is no Shazzam! answer that has the Hawks on the right track. He asked a lot of people he knew, leaders in business, what they did when something similar happened. He also knew he was older, his own kids were out of the house. Could he still relate to his players in the same way, even as he saw society changing to an "instant, instant, instant" world, as he put it?
Even casual observers saw his teams the last couple of seasons didn't look like they trusted each other on the court.
"You're right on," Martelli said. "The eyes tell you what it's in the heart. There were a lot of days where I was looking at eyes and I'm going, they're empty. And you know - did you lose the team? I don't know if I lost the team, but there were individual guys withdrawing and going, 'I can't believe that I'm involved in this.' Because some of it's inflated opinions. 'How can this be happening to me because I know I'm really good?' Really, what they were saying, they didn't trust the next guy, they didn't have faith in the next player."
Martelli said he never asked, but wondered if in the locker room there also were conversations going on like, "My high school coach says we should be doing this . . . my dad says we should be doing this."
A bunch of players transferred in the last few years, but Martelli said that has become more part of the culture - "Is everybody aware that 40 percent of kids by the end of their sophomore year are transferring? Basketball players. We weren't different."
If that sounds like rationalization, Martelli wasn't taking himself out of any equation. If there wasn't enough trust built up, that was on him. He learned how to text his players, not that he's claiming that can magically open up communications. But he knew he had to work harder to understand how to connect.
The best way is always winning. Martelli does believe the trust is back within the program, that these current players have a belief in their own abilities but they also see the other guys can play, too. Winning some games at the end of last season, getting to the Atlantic Ten tournament semifinals, had the desired effect, carrying to the preseason.
Martelli still wants to see how resilient this group is this year. The early returns are strong. And after their longest practice of this season, Martelli related how assistant Geoff Arnold came up to the office and told him seven players were still in the gym shooting.
"We do have a group that likes to be in the gym," Martelli said. "Now in the negative, they don't all know what they're doing in there. They don't all know what to do with their own time. But they do like to be in there."
Even if you aren't a Hawk and don't like Martelli, even if he's the enemy personified, you have to acknowledge Philadelphia basketball is better when St. Joseph's is relevant, even for this reason alone: The two best rivalries in the city over the last couple of decades have been St. Joseph's-Villanova and St. Joseph's-Temple. Those games were diminished over the last couple of seasons.
"The worst thing, in my opinion, that you can become is irrelevant," Martelli said.
Martelli isn't the type to stop fighting. That was obvious even in the toughest of times. After a loss to Temple last season at the Palestra, Martelli was defiant, saying of his critics, "I will tell you one thing: Vengeance will be sweet. And if my family gets hurt by it, then you are talking about a whole other ball game."
Now that was said in postgame heat, which Martelli can bring with the best of them. He isn't making any claims that his team has arrived anywhere yet.
"We're pretty good at home," he said. "It's 10 games."
He doesn't want to think anything has been accomplished yet. But is there any chance he'll look up some critics and e-mail them back? Is he at least tempted?
"The honest answer is, when my mind's not going 100 miles an hour, I'll think of that," Martelli said. "I'll think of it. But I think that if I get all caught up in that, then they win, whoever the they are. What I enjoy is this: I enjoy the fact that last night we went to Target and went Christmas shopping. You know when people want to tell you, 'Great start,' or they want to smile, and for that moment in time they want to be connected with you. Well, we went through two years where that wasn't happening.
"The players are normal people. They like the fact that people pat them on the back. They like that 1,000 students show up at the games and scream their names. They like the fact that they don't have to apologize or explain what happened."
Same goes for coaches.