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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Martelli Will Never Overcoach

March 17, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE

SAN DIEGO — Stanford is probably going to beat St Joseph's in today's West Regional second-round game at Cox Arena and, in a way, it will be a shame.

Because that will mean Hawk Coach Phil Martelli has to take his Sweet 16 wit and common sense back home to Philadelphia.

The NCAA tournament could use a few more rounds of Martelli, a man who cuts through the baloney of college basketball like few others.

For one, he abhors the cliche of the coaching scene, the I'll-scratch-your-back, you-stab-mine mentality.

Martelli, who lost the great follicle war years ago, would need a transplant to slick his hair back.

Martelli hates:

* Coaches congregating at the Final Four.

"Everybody has a sweatsuit and they call each other 'Coach,' " he says. "Somebody's going to break their neck sometime at the Final Four, then you're going to have a story. Because everybody yells 'Coach!' and they whip their heads around. It's like Linda Blair in 'The Exorcist.' . . . I'm Phil Martelli. If you don't want to find out my name, then let's not even have a conversation. Don't 'Coach' me."

* Teams that "play hard."

"I can't stand teams that play hard," Martelli says. "You're supposed to play hard."

* Intensity.

"Intensity? What the hell is intensity? You're just playing basketball. Just talk normal to people."

* Coaches who act as if they invented the game.

"A lot of people in my business feel that, in the room, at the same time, were them and [James] Naismith," Martelli says. "And Naismith said, 'Let's make [the basket] 11 feet and they went, 'Nah, Jim, make it 10.' "

In Martelli's perfect world, every sentence would begin, "Let's cut the bull."

Friday, a couple of his players sat at the dais and pronounced that Stanford was not invincible.

They said Stanford was not that fast and didn't block a lot of shots.

Martelli was told of his players' remarks.

He first feigned indignation, said the players would be severely reprimanded, then fessed up.

"Honestly," he said of Stanford, "they don't have a lot of speed and they don't block a lot of shots."

Martelli is funny.

"I don't know a lot about Stanford except their mascot is a tree," he says. "How do you put that on your resume? Activities in college: 'I was a tree.' "

He produces the best coach's show in the country, "Hawktalk." Among Martelli's featured guests have been the team bus driver and the arena janitor.

Martelli has a bit called "Martelli the Magnificent," a takeoff on Johnny Carson's "Carnac."

A few years ago, Arizona canceled a game at St Joe's because of threatening weather.

Martelli the Magnificent worked his anger into his act.

Answer: A Japanese pitcher, a bad mistake and Lute Olson.

Question: What is Nomo, a no-no and a no-show?

Martelli is more than funny, though. Humor is a weapon and a shield.

He says his job is fun, but it is not funny.

He takes basketball very seriously.

He opened the paper Friday to discover Ohio Coach Larry Hunter had been fired.

"Are you kidding me?" Martelli said, except the word he used was not "kidding."

"He went 19-12 and they're going to fire a guy? Who do they think they are? There's something out of whack."

Martelli is 46. He grew up in Philadelphia and was weaned on father-son pilgrimages to the Palestra.

He got to St Joe's the old fashioned way, working his way up through the high school ranks.

He wasn't a good enough guard to play at St. Joe's, a small Catholic school in Philadelphia, so he went to Widener.

Martelli lacked connections to get on the coaching fast track.

"I didn't really have a godfather," he says. "I was a Division III player, you know what I mean? All these guys have their families out there. There's a Krzyzewski family, a Dean Smith family, a Pitino family. I had no idea."

St. Joseph's Coach Jim Boyle hired Martelli as a restricted-earnings assistant in 1985.

"Until you work for the Catholics, you don't really know what restricted earning is," Martelli quipped.

The job paid so little Martelli had to keep his day job, teaching math at a reform school.

He spent 10 years at St Joseph's until he was hired as head coach in 1995.

He celebrated the occasion by breaking down in tears.

"I have a job that is absolutely like the commercial says: priceless," he says. "There's never been a day where I got up and said, 'Man, I can't believe this is what I've got to do today.' "

Martelli's rosy outlook should not be confused with frivolity.

Basketball can be cruel.

Martelli's first St. Joseph's squad made it to the National Invitation Tournament. His second, in 1997, the Hawks went 26-7 and swooped into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, beating Pacific and Boston College before losing to Kentucky in the regional semifinals.

But then came seasons of 11-17, 12-18 and 13-16, before this year's tournament turnaround.

Martelli is still too nervous to eat on game days. He doesn't sleep well during the season.

He knows coaches were hired to get fired and that one day he will feel what Larry Hunter feels.

Until then, between first and last checks, why not work in a few yucks?

Balding St. Joseph's coach to balding reporter asking question:

"Did you get a haircut because of me?"

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