Phil Martelli was let go as the men’s basketball coach of Saint Joseph’s University today, a move that has induced a lot of feelings that I would normally post on social media. His departure is difficult to limit to 240 characters. As a lifelong basketball fan and SJU alumnus, his tenure as head basketball coach has spanned so many chapters of my life that it is hard to fathom a season where he does not patrol the sidelines at Hawk Hill.
Athletics should not define a collegiate experience, but Coach Martelli informed an incalculable part of my identity as a Hawk. He was hired in 1995 and became part of my life from day one, even if he did not know it.
My father is also a Saint Joseph’s alum. He did not miss an episode of Martelli’s colorful coach’s show Hawk Talk. We eventually appeared on separate episodes of the series. He had a guest spot. I was very briefly “Lute Olson.” forming an exclusive father-son club that even Jayson Stark would have trouble digging up statistics on.
Admittedly, it was an unusual family viewing experience. Aside from watching Martelli’s Carnac before I knew of Johnny Carson, SJU basketball was everything in winter. From 1995 until 2003, there were snowed-in basketball games, March moments, and even practices that provided indelible thrills. I was hooked from an early age.
Even though I did not enroll at Saint Joseph’s until the fall of 2004, my tenure as a student really began on November 14, 2003.
That was the night that Saint Joseph’s defeated perennial powerhouse Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden. Not only did I attend that game with my Dad, but we bumped into then-SJU Athletic Director Don DiJulia and Philadelphia Daily News writer Dick Jerardi at Penn Station after the contest.
Little did I know how much that night would impact the rest of my life. It was the start of the legendary 2003-04 perfect season, the year when Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse became the center of college basketball.
That season was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life. Not because of the victories. The wins occurred at an important crossroads. As a senior in high school, it drove me to get into SJU and fully realize what becoming a Hawk was all about: effort, passion, and compassion.
I was fortunate to interact with Phil Martelli in my time as a student. He even helped me write a paper on the transformation of the aging Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse into Hagan Arena. What resonated with me is not the quotes he provided. It was the time that he took to help a student who was an overwhelmed and underqualified interviewer. College basketball coaches are busy. No hard feelings would have developed if he told me to buzz off.
The paper, for a journalism class taught by WIP’s Glen Macnow, turned out to be more than just a few hundred words. It was the first time that I fell in love with writing.
I never found out what that paper’s grade was. It did not matter. In writing that paper I found happiness in the craft. Something clicked about following my passion. I am not sure that drive would have developed had he had not generously given me a few moments of his time.
I will always be grateful to Phil Martelli for two things: his success on the basketball court and the way he treated everyone around him.
The basketball moments were always defined by sound. The noise of 3,200-plus people losing their minds when a Pat Carroll three or a clutch defensive play shifted a game in the Hawks’ favor. The noise that fueled intense rides that included a near-defeat of top-ranked UMass, a 2005 NIT run, surviving Cincinnati, or a near-late night upset of number one-seeded Oregon.
The wins have been less frequent over the last few years. Whenever I go to an SJU game now, I still search for that sound of a packed house and unbridled joy. That is the most rewarding attribute of fandom.
Those feelings came back for one evening this year. It was a night when the team was mourning the passing of Martelli’s father. His injury-plagued Hawks made shot after shot against Saint Louis. It was the kind of magic that cannot be explained.
I will always remember how he treated others. These days, it is rare to have complete trust that your college basketball program is in ethical hands. A moral compass is a luxury in 2019.
Phil Martelli showed me how to be a Hawk more than any basketball player. I learned by watching him provide meaningful moments to people. While many were in rougher circumstances than a student needing lines for a paper, the moment that impacted me most was our conversation in 2008. More than just a couple of quips, it stoked a passion, informed how I should treat others, and taught me a lesson about following dreams to the fullest. Thank you, Coach Martelli.
The Hawk Will Never Die