King of the (Hawk) Hill: Philadelphia born and bred, Phil Martelli has the coaching job he always wanted.
MARTELLI: The success of this team is that the players bought into, accepted, and actually cherished the idea of playing to certain standards. Those standards would be: sharing the basketball and ball pressure on defense. Those are our two standards. We do that at every position on almost every possession in almost every game.
I never put a win total, or an Atlantic 10 Conference regular season championship, or an NCAA berth as goals. I never did as a high school coach. All I have wanted was for my team to play better each day. If we could improve individually and collectively each day, then at the end of our year, we would be playing our best basketball heading into March. And we would see where that would lead us.
COACH: Tenacious defense and superior perimeter play have been the staples of recent St. Joe's teams. As a coach, do you subscribe to the theory of having your players adapt to the system or adapting the system to the players?
MARTELLI: Certainly adapt the system to the players. I am not smart enough, to be honest with you, to have my own system. I believe that most systems are hybrids. They are stolen concepts, adapted concepts. In college basketball, Princeton's offense is a system. Temple's defense is a system. Maybe the man-to-man defense taught by Bobby Knight is a system. Then I think the rest of us are kind of picking and choosing and stealing and borrowing and begging from each other. You might call it "blue" and I might call it "two," but really it's the same kind of ideas, principles, and concepts.
COACH: Now that you have brought the Hawks to national prominence, your program is constantly in the crosshairs, especially during your long unbeaten streak. What positives come from being a marked team?
MARTELLI: It brings greater attention to detail by your coaching staff and scouting reports. It certainly heightens your players' awareness that they should cherish the opportunity to be on the practice floor--and to compete. They are going to get X number of limited opportunities to compete. At the same time, the overriding intangible is that they're going to be on a team that they are going to remember forever. They're going to be able to have some shared moments that most teams in most years don't get.
COACH: How has your success helped in the recruiting process? You certainly have had your share of fine players, the latest being guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West.
MARTELLI: We will now have the opportunity to present our program to some of the players that you might say would go to a so-called "television school" or one of the "BCS Conference" schools. We will certainly take advantage of that opportunity. I wholeheartedly believe that kids in eighth and ninth grade make up their minds about colleges very early on. They know if they are going to be good enough to get a scholarship. Most ninth graders would have Duke on their list, then maybe Kansas and [North] Carolina. Now maybe we can get on a couple of those lists and then give us a chance to present what I think is a very unique opportunity to play major college basketball in a smaller school setting. We certainly believe it is going to pay dividends and we are working hard to make sure that it does pay dividends.
COACH: What kind of player do you recruit at Saint Joseph's?
MARTELLI: The first thing I recruit is a guy who is willing to compete. Everybody is out there because the kid has skills. We know that. That's identifiable. To me, it's the willingness to compete. Second, I want a player who loves basketball. Lastly, I want to have a player who will strive for greatness and allow us to coach him to greatness. Unfortunately, there are a lot of young players who know it all. I want a player who realizes that coaching is a big part of his improvement. And someone who recognizes that they may not be reaching high enough to achieve their potential. Someone who is willing to dare to be great. Because it's not easy. It's a lot easier to say, "I'd like to be OK at this. I have my scholarship."
COACH: What are the keys to getting a smaller program, i.e., St. Joe's, Marquette, and Gonzaga, to think big and compete and win on the national level?
MARTELLI: It's going to sound simple, but it's players. I think you have to have really good players to compete. In some ways I think it is possible at smaller schools because young players want to play instantly. They don't want to go to maybe a bigger name school and sit around and wait their turn. They'd rather play earlier, play through their mistakes.
You also have to be lucky. You have to find a kid that maybe somebody else doesn't see. And you do see something. You also have to be blessed with a terrific coaching staff. Not just a head coach, but assistants who work hard and tirelessly promote your program. That's kind of a similarity that schools like St. Joe's, Marquette, and Gonzaga all share.
COACH: You have never flirted with other coaching jobs, nor have you perceived Saint Joseph's as a steppingstone job, as some other coaches might, for riches elsewhere. What has kept you on Hawk Hill?
MARTELLI: This is my area. I grew up in Philadelphia. I have the best of both worlds. I can pursue my life-long dream, which was to be a Division I head coach in the city where I grew up. I can share that with my family and friends who see me as an ordinary guy who has an extraordinary job. That's the way I want to be perceived. At some bigger schools you have to become the "coach." I would much rather prefer being just Phil Martelli.
COACH: As a savvy point guard, you helped lead Widener University to successive NCAA Tournament appearances in 1974-75 and 1975-76, the latter season reaching the Division III Final Four, while setting school single season and career assist marks. What kind of player were you?
MARTELLI: I was a guy who knew where everybody should be on the floor. I was a good passer and had a good understanding of the game. I think I was a good teammate in that I was able to get people in the right position and talk to them when they were down and out. I wasn't a great shooter and I was somewhat of a reluctant shooter, to be honest. Not the greatest feet. So I had to cheat and clutch and grab and do those kinds of things defensively.
COACH: You spent seven years as head coach at Bishop Kenrick High in Norristown, PA, where you led the team to an unprecedented six straight Philadelphia Catholic League playoff appearances and a school-record 108-career wins. How did coaching in a highly competitive high school league prepare you during your formative years?
MARTELLI: I treated my high school experience akin to running a program. We ran a program. Whether it was ordering sneakers or uniforms or practice gear. Scheduling practice time with the women. Scheduling with the art department. Scheduling games. Developing somewhat of a feeder system through a CYO tournament. Dealing with the media. All of those things, on a smaller scale, helped me when I became a head coach at Saint Joseph's. Now, somebody will say this is a bigger stage. Yes, it is. But the responsibilities as the head coach to organize people, to energize people, and to maximize peoples' skills, they're the same, whether I was a high school or college coach.
COACH: You earned your stripes as a 10-year assistant at St. Joe's. What did you do to improve your coaching acumen during that period?
MARTELLI: I continued to keep massive amounts of notes. I noted everything. If I was watching a game and I saw a pattern that I liked, I would jot it down. If I saw something that happened in the media. If I read a press conference about somebody getting a job. I improved, certainly, in the recruiting area. Expanded my contacts and connections to make sure that when I got an opportunity, that I would be ready. I reached out to people who maybe couldn't help one year but could assist me the following year. All of those things helped me grow as an assistant.
COACH: What tips can you provide current assistants with head coaching aspirations?
MARTELLI: Every assistant coach should come to work every day and think like the head coach. I mean that in all ways. What department on campus can you reach out and touch? Who can you pick up the phone and call? Not because you want something, but maybe you can do something for them. Maybe you're just calling with congratulations. Writing notes, dropping notes. Carrying yourself as if you were the head coach for a day. Because you never know what can happen. Maybe there's an injury, there's an illness, or a family emergency. You've become the head coach.
If you're not thinking that way and you're not preparing--and I give great credit to John Griffin and Jim Boyle for my opportunity here--then that opportunity will pass you by. When I came here after coaching high school ball, I thought college coaching was the same. Then I learned. Every day I learned something new. Both John and Jim gave me responsibility, whether it was speaking to alumni groups, or doing charity work, organizing the players academically, scouting reports, and travel itineraries. All of those things prepared me for the day I got this job.
COACH: When did you first realize that you wanted to coach basketball?
MARTELLI: Probably when I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I realized that I had an ability to understand the game a little bit. Even more so, I felt at that age that I had an ability to get people organized and to get people to follow me. My other dream, at one point, was to go into politics. Basketball coaching is probably not all that different than politics.
COACH: Where was your very first coaching job at any level?
MARTELLI: When I was as sophomore at St. Joe's Prep High School, I coached a grade school team in a summer league. My first full-time job was as the JV coach at Cardinal O'Hara High in 1976. Then I went back to Widener for a year as an assistant before taking the job at Bishop Kenrick.
COACH: Who are your coaching mentors and who has had the biggest influence on you in the coaching profession?
MARTELLI: My parents [Jane and Phil] rank first because they taught me to respect everybody, and deal with people person-to-person. I think that's my greatest strength as a coach.
As for coaching mentors, everybody who has ever coached me: CYO, high school, summer leagues, camps, and college. Everybody who I have ever met in coaching I have stolen from. I say that affectionately. Everything that people see in me now is kind of a hodgepodge of all these people who I've been able to study up close and personal.
COACH: What kind of offense and defense do you employ and how were the systems derived?
MARTELLI: Defensively we believe in ball pressure. We pressure the ball full-court. We don't always trap. We want to be there and be aggressive. Make no pass easy, no catch easy, no shot easy, no dribble easy.
Offensively, the biggest thing I believe in is spreading the floor and taking you on the dribble. There's no real pattern to it. It's much more being aggressive with your dribble. But not dribbling for dribbling sake or dribbling for yourself, it's dribbling to help a teammate get a shot.
COACH: Describe your coaching methodology? What are your greatest attributes?
MARTELLI: My methodology is organization. I believe wholeheartedly in being organized. Every time we take the practice floor, whether it's a half-hour walk through or a 2 1/2-hour practice in October, every minute is scripted. Every minute is competitive. I think players enjoy competition. I think they enjoy knowing there is going to be a beginning and an end to a drill or a segment of practice, and that they need to search constantly for perfection. That's my personal goal in everything I do--recruiting and off-season workouts.
In terms of my characteristics, I think that each player wants to be dealt with fairly. But they have to understand that doesn't mean that each player is going to be dealt with the same. Somebody might get yelled at or barked at. Somebody else might get hugged and have their back rubbed. To me, one of the things that coaches forget on all levels is they think they are coaching basketball. I would correct every coach out there and say, "You're not coaching basketball. You're coaching people who play basketball and who love basketball. And you can never forget that this is a people business."
COACH: What is the key to being a not only a good teacher for your players, but also a good listener?
MARTELLI: I think that it's just a matter of giving of your time. That's what is most helpful, because this is a hectic job. Before or after a game you can be running to a TV show or radio interview. Time is valuable. You have to make it count. Your players have to know that your office is a place where they can come comfortably. I don't think that you can treat the situation as if your player is going to see the high school principal. And we all know that you go to principal when you are having a little bit of a problem.
The big key is availability to your players. Not aloofness. You have to let them know that your back is to their back. They also have to know that when they are right you will tell them, "Yes." And when they're wrong you will tell them, "No. That was wrong."
COACH: What aspect of coaching do you enjoy the most and why: recruiting, practice, game preparation, or in-game decision making?
MARTELLI: I love practice. Because that is really my time to teach. I have great confidence in my teaching ability and my assistants' ability that we can make each guy a little bit better every day. I also love recruiting because I think I am a people person. I like to meet new people. I like to exchange ideas with people, and hopefully, get them to see that there's a tremendous opportunity at St. Joe's.
COACH: Your wife, Judy, was a player for the fabled Immaculata women's program. How beneficial is it to have a spouse who can relate to your vocation? Who wins in a game of H-O-R-S-E?
MARTELLI: She would win in a game of H-O-R-S-E. (Laughter) But it is invaluable to be married to someone who understands your time restraints. There are a lot of sacrifices. There are a lot of great things that come with this job. I'm not going to deny that to anybody. But people must understand that you are a human being, a husband, a father, a son, or a brother. You give up a lot to do what you do. Maybe you miss a birthday or something as mundane as a Super Bowl party. To know that you can go home and your family supports you is a wonderful feeling. The other thing is, in this day and age to be loved is a monumental feat for anybody. Whether you're loved by your wife or your children. Or you're a parent and you love your children. We actually need more of that, I believe.
COACH: You are widely regarded as being one of the more outgoing and affable personalities among coaches. That is especially evident on your local TV show, HawkTalk, where you don a turban and perform a Carnac The Magnificent (in this case, Martelli The Magnificent) skit, a la Johnny Carson. How and when do you reveal that side to your players and how important is that trait in being a successful coach?
MARTELLI: I use humor constantly because I believe this job is fun. It's not funny. Eighty jobs change hands every two years. That's 25% of all the D-I coaching jobs. That's definitely not funny. But it is certainly fun. You are dealing with young people: fans, summer campers, and your team. The youngsters are doing something that they really, really love. So I allow my humor to come out, maybe in a tense situation in the locker room, maybe in practice as kind of a barb directed at motivating someone.
Fortunately my St. Joe's players understand that things aren't free and easy. It means that I am just a regular guy like them. There are things that make me laugh.
Some of that has to do with the fact that the media is kind of taken aback that I don't enter into coach-speak. I'm going to say what I feel and what I think. Sometimes there are funny replies. It's not like I plot anything I am going to say. I kind of say it tongue in cheek. Again, I just try and keep as human an element as possible in my program.
COACH: What would you say is the biggest problem facing college basketball coaches today?
MARTELLI: It's a combination of things: Young people at all levels are looking for instant gratification. And many young people can't deal with disappointment, whether it is playing time, a bad loss, or a bad call.
I don't think we've taught our young people that life is full of peaks and valleys. But they've got to realize that they're not the first to go into the valley nor will they be the last. That's the challenge to me. Everybody wants it right away. Then they don't know how to deal with it when it doesn't go their way.
COACH: What changes, if any, would you like to see implemented in the college game?
MARTELLI: I would like to have the opportunity to work with my players all year round. I think my value to them is as a teacher. We're allowed to work with them for two hours in the fall, before practice starts, and for two hours in the spring, when the season ends. But I would like to see, particularly for kids who are in school in the summer, that we, as coaches, be allowed to continue that throughout the year.
COACH: During the past few seasons, you have encountered several bouts of adversity at the helm on the Hill, including losing a player to academics, and a couple of recruits to eligibility rules, key injuries, and overcoming severe graduation losses to post winning seasons. Nonetheless, you have been able to post winning records. How do you keep a team focused during those tough stretches?
MARTELLI: I go back to my original idea: Today and only today. Today we have to do the very best we can. Whether it's a weightlifting session, a day off, a study hall session, a tutoring session, an individual workout, or a full-scale practice. I think you have to zero in on that is the most precious time that we have. And if we can gradually get better, we can overcome all of those things. But you really have to cherish the moment you have and stay in that moment.
COACH: Last question. What one word defines Saint Joseph's basketball?
INTERVIEW BY KEVIN NEWELL
PHOTO BY DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES | ABOVE PHOTO BY GREG CARROCCIO/SIDELINE PHOTOS
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|Title Annotation:||PERSON TO PERSON|
|Publication:||Coach and Athletic Director|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2004|
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