November 05, 2019
Phil Martelli is back home again. He’s 65, at another station in life, at another school, in another state — yet, he’s right where he wants to be, on a bench, coaching basketball. He doesn’t feel rejuvenated, either. He’s never not been “juvenated,” Martelli says, followed by his familiar, bellowing laugh that filled the Palestra, and every other local Big 5 venue and outdoor playground hoops hotbed for over 50 years.
Tuesday night, the Michigan Wolverines will begin their basketball season under first-year head coach and Fab Five legend Juwan Howard. Right next to Howard will be another legend, Martelli, who after 34 years at St Joe’s, 24 as a head coach and the previous 10 as an assistant, was fired by new St. Joe’s Athletic Director Jill Bodensteiner on Tuesday, March 19.
“I just love being on a team; the fact that I was the head of a team, I have this tremendous boost,” Martelli said. “I’m exhausted at the end of every day, but I was exhausted at the end of every day for 34 years. I never lost that pursuit of championships; I never lost that I want to be better tomorrow than I am today.
“Ironically, I was writing a note to myself about trying to touch more people. That’s what this has always been about. I can go to the dry cleaner, I can go to church, I can stop for gas, and the fact that I can put a smile on someone’s face won’t change. I want others to feel good about the interaction that we had.”
There is a ‘but’ in there from the previous place. Martelli admits the stretch of months since the decision was made in March until now has taken time for him to heal. There was a deep emotional investment he left, and he still thinks of nine families who had to change their direction because of the sweeping changes throughout the athletic department of the private Jesuit university at 5600 City Avenue.
“I still have pain over nine families, who changed their plans and transferred or not enrolled,” Martelli said. “The athletic trainer was changed; the strength-and-conditioning coach changed; the sports-information person was changed; the academic person was changed; three assistant coaches and their families, they all had to endure change.
“I still carry the pain of them with me and I’m not ashamed to say I say a prayer for all of them every day. There was a stretch in the late summer when I thought about the Michigan offer, ‘Does this move make me look selfish?’ I spoke out loud to people, though part of me carries a dull pain, because I should have and could have done more for all of them.”
One individual Martelli reached out to was Jameer Nelson, the former Chester High and Big 5 great who led the No. 1-seeded Hawks into the 2004 NCAA tournament Elite Eight round.
“When I got the call from Phil, I told him he has to take the (Michigan) job,” said Nelson, 37, who lives Haverford, Delaware County, and is thinking of getting into broadcasting. “Phil is in a situation where he’s an assistant, but being with Juwan, who’s a first-year head coach, he’ll be a big help.
“Juwan and Phil are great guys. I’m extremely happy for Phil. I know he wants to coach. Phil loves helping people. It’s why it’s so important that he’s there for Juwan. He just wanted to coach again—that’s all. Phil’s highly thought of in the basketball world, and that’s because of who Phil is. He’s a great basketball mind, but more importantly, he’s a good person. He’s the type of guy who will take the shirt off his back for you.
“Juwan played and coached, but college basketball is a different landscape. Phil Martelli knows every landscape in college basketball. He’s been No. 1 in the country and he’s had tough seasons that he dealt with, too. He’ll be a big help not just to Juwan, but to the whole program.”
Within weeks of being in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Martelli was on a first-name basis with everyone from the Michigan team manager to the head of basketball operations.
That’s just Phil Martelli.
It’s also why numerous coaches reached out to Martelli when the news came out in March. In May, Hall of Famer and Kentucky head coach John Calipari called Martelli to see if there might be some interest in aiding Howard, if he got the job at Michigan. Howard was looking for former college head coaches whose experience could guide him along his path.
Calipari set up a discussion with Howard, who called Martelli the next day.
“It was so comfortable that when the conversation ended, I was enthralled with the guy, I started to wonder about the possibilities and began to discuss it with Judy (Phil’s wife) and not turning her world upside down,” Martelli said.
In the following weeks, Martelli did his own homework on Howard. He spoke to Howard’s agent, and his former Fab Five coach at Michigan, Steve Fisher. He discussed the possibility with Nelson and his other players (“They’re never former players—they’re my players, they’re always going to be my players,” Martelli says).
Like most, Martelli knew Howard played with the Fab Five, was an NBA champion and a long-time NBA assistant coach. But Martelli also found out Howard graduated with his class, a year after he left early for the NBA, because he made a promise to his grandmother that he would graduate college. This was before there were on-line courses. This was an NBA millionaire who studied in hotel rooms and on dimly lit buses.
Martelli also found Howard possesses a great love with Michigan, which Howard considers home. It was a high priority Howard gave back to a place that had given so much to him. These traits impressed Martelli.
When Jeff Van Gundy told Martelli that Howard was just like Jameer Nelson, “That sealed the deal for me,” Martelli said. “If someone tells you he’s like Jameer, that’s the highest compliment anyone can tell me about a human being.
“Forget being a basketball player. For those back home, the best way to put it is that Juwan is just a ‘good dude.’”
Martelli became more convinced Howard was the right person and Michigan was the right place for him.
On June 3, Martelli accepted Howard’s offer.
“It was gratifying, but I didn’t come on board with Juwan to prove myself; what I wanted to do was be on a team and celebrate victories, and pick people up after losses and celebrate championships,” Martelli said. “That’s exactly what is happening here. The excellence at Michigan, from the athletic directors, to compliance, to the administration, it’s just a motivator to be great.
“It’s a great opportunity with great people. Michigan is a blue-blood program, but they don’t act like it. That they thought enough of me is touching. They don’t even know how great that feels. I’m trying to still earn that respect; it’s just comfortable. It’s a big-time program with a warmth. There’s nothing cold here.”
Martelli’s biggest adjustment as an assistant coach has been defending his point of view. It’s something he has not had to do in over two decades, whether it’s recruiting or talking Xs and Os. As a head coach, Martelli was the ruler of his kingdom. Now, he’s challenged—and he loves it. It’s forced him to think differently. He’s been enamored with Howard’s pro approach.
On August 1, Martelli got a place in Ann Arbor that’s about 15 minutes away from campus. Judy Martelli will stay in Media, Delaware County, and will fly out twice a month around games.
There was also something interesting in over 60 minutes of conversation with its greatest coach and greatest player: there was no mention by name of the previous school where Nelson starred and Martelli coached for 34 years.
And both are legends.
Whether consciously, or subconsciously, it’s a great sign of how Phil Martelli has moved forward.
“Phil is my guy,” Nelson said. “I’m not bitter or angry about what happened with Phil. Do I believe in what they did? I don’t know. There are a lot of new moving parts there now. I don’t know anyone over there. Relationships are gained and trust has to be built. If anyone wants a relationship with me, they have to earn it. I wish the school nothing but success.
“There are kids involved and I want to see them succeed. I want to see the school excel. That’s never going to change. I’m always going to be a very proud alum. It’s my school. It doesn’t mean I’m going to step foot in the arena anytime soon.”
As for Martelli, he has another job to do: “Make everybody in the country recognize Juwan Howard as a hell of a coach, not just a member of the Fab Five,” he says. “I’m not going to rest easy until that mission is accomplished. On the actual game day, I have to reciprocate the way I’ve been treated here. I love how humble, humble, humble Juwan is. He’s a worker, whether it’s recruiting or in practice.
“When we go on a tour for recruiting takes time, because Juwan stops and accommodates everyone. It’s what I tried to do on a smaller scale.”
The Wolverines host Appalachian State in their regular-season opener Tuesday night at 7 p.m. (St. Joe's opens its season Tuesday as well.)
“Playing on Monday night in April is what this is about,” Martelli said. “But I don’t know what it will be like that opening game night. I really don’t know what it’s going to be like being on another bench. Once the game starts, all that ends. It’s basketball again. I’m coaching again.”
He’ll be home.
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