College Basketball Coach Phil Martelli of Saint Joseph's (PA) on the Hot Seat
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March 2, 2004: Michael J. Hagen ’85 Arena, Philadelphia, PA.
A national ESPN audience watches as St. Bonaventure’s Andy Smith misses a three-point jumper, Arvydas Lidzius grabs the defensive rebound, and Dwayne Lee goes on to miss a two-point layup. St. Bonaventure’s Greg Lewis grabs the defensive rebound, the buzzer sounds, and Saint Joseph’s (PA), a small school located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, can say something no other college basketball team has been able to say for over a generation: Perfection.
With their 32-point win over St. Bonaventure, Saint Joseph’s (PA) completed a perfect season. 27-0 overall, 16-0 in the Atlantic 10. No. 1 ranked team in the nation. National Coach of the Year Award trophy about to be engraved with Phil Martelli’s name, Saint Joseph’s (PA) looked forward to the postseason.
The 2004 postseason was not quite as perfect for Martelli and his Saint Joseph’s (PA) Hawks. Saint Joseph’s (PA) went on to lose by 20 points in their conference championship opener, the worst loss by a No. 1-ranked team to an unranked team in the history of college basketball. Saint Joseph’s (PA) also disappointed in the NCAA Tournament when Jameer Nelson’s game-winning shot attempt clanked off the rim and the Hawks were upset by the lesser seeded Oklahoma State.
Looking back, this was a wonderful season for Saint Joseph’s (PA). Banner-worthy in so many respects. After an NCAA Tournament drought of over a decade, Saint Joseph’s (PA) had been to four recent big dances and compiled six tournament wins in those trips. One has to go all the way back to 1966 when Dr. Jack Ramsey was coach of the Hawks to find Saint Joseph’s (PA) previous six tournament wins. Things were really starting to look good on Hawk Hill.
Flash forward six seasons, Saint Joseph’s (PA) has not won a tournament game since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West left campus. Saint Joseph’s (PA) has not finished in the RPI top 40 in any season. Saint Joseph’s (PA) has finished outside the RPI top 100 in each of the last two seasons. The schedule gets weaker and weaker every year, and the fans become less and less interested.
The 2004 season, which was supposed to be the start of something great, is looking more like the beginning of the end.
So where does Saint Joseph’s (PA) go from here? What is the status of their long-time and legendary coach, Phil Martelli?
In 2004, Phil Martelli looked like the perfect fit for Saint Joseph’s (PA). Charismatic with the media, friendly with the fans, successful on the court, developed Atlantic 10 talent into NBA talent, and looked like he had no plans to ever leave Saint Joseph’s (PA). Six years later Saint Joseph’s (PA) fans must ask themselves if it is time they politely show Phil the door.
Phil has gone from a fearless and trusted leader to someone viewed with some different characteristics. Poor recruiting, characterized from both the talent and the academic risks. Poor development of players, as shown from the transfer mill that Saint Joseph’s (PA) has become as well as the lack of growth among the few who stick around for four years. An inability to motivate the players, as evidenced by the team’s quality moral victories against strong opponents such as Villanova, Temple and Kansas, yet blow-out losses to some very bad opponents.
Phil Martelli was able to sell his fans on players such as Rob Ferguson, Pat Calathes, Ahmad Nivins, Tasheed Carr, Idris Hilliard, Rockwell Moody, and the now infamous “Holy Trinity” of DJ Rivera, Darrin Govens and Jawan Carter. However, the competition in the Atlantic was not sold on these players. The recruiting treasures that followed after the 2004 perfect season were no more than widgets from a garage sale. Players such as Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson never lived up to their recruiting hype. Ahmad Nivins earned the nickname “Ice Cream” for the way he served it up softly to the opposition.
The Holy Trinity never amounted to much as 67 percent of it transferred and the remaining player never lived up to his “better recruit than Scottie Reynolds” label that he was tagged with during the 2006 recruiting summer. Scottie Reynolds went on to be an AP First Team All-American and provided the 2009 NCAA Tournament the moment with his buzzer-beater against Pitt sending Villanova to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Saint Joseph's (PA) fans were left with the memory of their hero, Jameer Nelson, missing his chance at the glory and the continued downward spiral of their current program.
Beyond the failure to recruit quality talent, Phil has also been plagued with a transfer epidemic. Too many transfers to count on two hands over the past half dozen years for all sorts of reasons. Out of respect of the young men these reasons need not be discussed, but let’s all agree that a coach cannot successfully run a program with that type of transfer rate. Many of these transfers were foreseeable as the players presented risks when they were offered their scholarships.
The motivational issues are not something that can be ignored either. Why are Phil’s teams able to compete and gain moral victories in close losses against very good teams, yet they lose to horrible opponents? In the past two seasons, Saint Joseph’s (PA) has lost to their hated rival Villanova, a Final Four team in 2009 and a No. 2 seed in 2010, by only a combined 12 points. Moral victories for Saint Joseph’s (PA) fans, if such a thing ever existed. In the recent six-year spiral, Saint Joseph’s (PA) also earned a moral victory at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse, and actually won games against powers such as Kansas and Indiana. Saint Joseph's (PA) has played fellow Philadelphia and Atlantic 10 power, Temple, very competitively.
So why do we look at Saint Joseph’s (PA)’s schedule and see losses to teams like DePaul, Rider, Princeton, Duquesne, Fordham and several losses to schools like Holy Cross, Drexel and La Salle? How come these same players that can play elite competition like Villanova and Kansas so tough struggle against Ivy League and non-scholarship Patriot League teams?
Has Phil Martelli lost his fastball? Has Phil lost his team?
The fan expectations and interest are suffering. Mediocrity has been accepted. Students who enrolled at Saint Joseph's following the 2004 perfect season campaign thinking they were attending a basketball power have felt cheated. There is even a rumor that Saint Joseph's (PA) fans' expectations have dropped so low that they rushed the court after an overtime win over Drexel in November of 2009. The game was not televised so the debate if this happened will never be settled, but who could blame Saint Joseph's (PA) fans for celebrating a season-opening overtime win over a team they had been losing to on a regular basis? This is how low the program has sunk.
The obvious follow-up question for Saint Joseph’s (PA) is who could they hire to replace Martelli? Not long ago Martelli was turning down job offers from major conference schools like Providence, Seton Hall, Rutgers and Penn State. But let’s not kid ourselves here, Saint Joseph’s (PA) is not going to win many coach recruiting battles with the big boys.
For a long time Saint Joseph’s (PA) fans talked about their former assistant, Mike Rice, as an option to replace Phil when the time came. Well, now Mike Rice is at Rutgers and not likely to take a downgrade from the Big East to the Atlantic 10.
Maybe somebody like Danny Hurley, formerly of the New Jersey high school scene now coaching at Wagner. Danny is already dominating Saint Joseph’s (PA) in recruiting in the Northeast Corridor, why wouldn’t Hurley bide his time at Wagner until a Big East team comes calling?
They could go with a recycled former major conference coach, like a Bobby Gonzalez, Tim Welsh, Mike Jarvis, Steve Lappas, Louis Orr, Fred Hill, Pete Gillen or Al Skinner. But are these the guys to take Saint Joseph’s (PA) back to prominence? And if one of these coaches did have some success how long before they run off to try their hand at another major conference job?
Tough decision ahead for Saint Joseph’s (PA) athletic officials.
Two things are for certain:
1. The Hawk Will Never Die
2. Nobody can ever take the glory of 2004 perfection away from Saint Joseph’s (PA) fans.
- TJ Corbs, tackling the hard hitting issues of the Northeast Corridor.
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