There are no lifetime contracts. College coaches are paid a lot of money to do a lot of things. At St. Joseph’s University, that list seems to never end.
College basketball is the front door, side door and back alley to Hawk Hill. For the last quarter-century, Phil Martelli has held the door open and encouraged anyone wandering up the alley to come on in.
One year short of that quarter-century.
I’d have given him that 25th year. I’m not saying it was a no-brainer. The first thing you get paid to do as a college coach is win games, and St. Joe’s didn’t win as many as anyone expected this season, after two previous losing seasons. Alumni unrest there isn’t new. It’s easy to say next season looks more promising — because it does — but this season looked more promising.
When Don DiJulia retired last year as athletic director and Jill Bodensteiner came in from Notre Dame, everyone understood that could mean change for more than just that one job. Bodensteiner surely knew the men’s basketball coaching succession would be on her watch. I’ve never heard a single person question her integrity. I don’t, either. The toughest part of her job would be helping decide when the Martelli era would end. It ended Tuesday.
Such a decision must have higher approval, and this one did, from the university president to the board of trustees. You can’t just put it on the new person. Martelli was way too important to the school for that.
The timing was questioned, even the day chosen. One emailer: “That’s a pathetic way St. Joe’s picked to celebrate the March 19 feast day of St. Joseph.”
What’s done is done, but damn, it’s crazy to think about St. Joe’s hoops without Phil Martelli. He once said this to me about another coach at another school: “Matt Rhule did the impossible. He made Philadelphia care about Temple football.”
Well, Phil Martelli did the impossible. He made the United States of America know about St. Joe’s basketball. (Yes, not for the first time. The impossible had been achieved before. The legacy goes back to Jack Ramsay. But who knew this bald guy who played point guard at Widener could be such a caretaker of the legacy?)
Sure, Jameer Nelson had something to do with it in 2004, and Delonte West and Pat Carroll and the rest, and 2004 was a long time ago now. Jameer’s son is showing up on Hawk Hill to play hoops next season. But that crazy ride — which included no losses before the Atlantic 10 Tournament, a Sports Illustrated cover, even Martelli sparring with Billy Packer — changed St. Joe’s. Applications went up. Donations went up. Pride went up, which isn’t easy at a place where the pride is always worn proudly, where the Hawk Will Never Die.
I’m firm on this: Martelli can X and O with anyone out there. If there was a button to press, he’d find it. If you don’t think players improved under his watch, find tapes of, say, Isaiah Miles. I considered Martelli’s veteran staff to be as good as any out there, any league.
Martelli, a quick wit always, could be tough, and always edgy. He wasn’t always a great loser. He’d get personal with referees. He wasn’t trying for sainthood. His father, who died just last month, had the sweet disposition, Phil would tell you.
But when Phil Martelli reached a certain stature in this city, which really started when he got the job in 1995 and had the Hawks in the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1997, he used his stature for good. He doubled down on his efforts for Coaches vs. Cancer and other, smaller causes. A call to him, he’d show up.
I heard from him Saturday night, a text, looking for the phone number of Swarthmore basketball coach Landry Kosmalski, whose team had just lost that evening in the NCAA Division III final. Martelli wanted to invite Kosmalski to Monday’s Coaches vs. Cancer breakfast, “so we can recognize him.”
Kosmalski made it there, with his wife, and he was asked to stand up, and all the City 6 coaches rose as a group to give him their personal Standing O. A nice touch. A Martelli touch.
Martelli could have left for Power 5 jobs after 2004, but he knew how to be the St. Joe’s coach. In this era when coaches typically quarantine their players away from the public and the media, Martelli kept his locker room open after games and his practices open to the public. In this modern world, security got a little tighter to the whole athletic complex, but anyone who could talk their way into the building was welcome to wander into the gym.
No lifetime contracts. I firmly believe that even if DiJulia were still in charge of athletics, conversations about the endgame still would have been held. Martelli will turn 65 in August. This is more of a forced retirement than a “firing.”
Good luck to the next guy, though. Martelli’s legacy will never die.