Phil Martelli in-bounds the ball to Georgetown Women's basketball head coach Pat Knapp. Knapp hands it back to Martelli, who dribbles the ball up-court. Ahead to Okidata Executive Jamie Hargadon at the top of the key; left-handed baseline pass to Glen Mills head coach Tom Mann; back to Martelli; underneath to Construction Executive Dennis Woodbury, who lays it up, and in.
Welcome to tiny Widener College, 1972-75. Widener is a small college located immediately off of I-95 about 10 miles south of Philadelphia. In the fall, you can find Billy "White Shoes" Johnson gaining yardage off of the Triple Option; in the winter, now Saint Joseph's Hawks basketball coach Phil Martelli is pushing the ball upcourt for the Widener Pioneers.
Widener College was a place where Phil Martelli could surround himself with greatness: with fellow students who had great visions for their own futures, with classmates who themselves achieved their visions. And it was indeed tiny.
Martelli had a unique vision for his future. Most college students remain unsure of what career they intend to pursue. Phil Martelli saw his career clearly. From the beginning he was a basketball coach - not only a basketball coach, but specifically the men's basketball coach of the Saint Joseph's University Hawks. Perhaps Martelli couldn't foresee that sixth man Pat Knapp would become a fellow Division 1 head coach for the Georgetown Lady Hoyas in the tough Big East Conference. And it's unlikely he foresaw that strong forward Tom Mann would one day become Head Basketball Coach of a High School for troubled boys, winning back-to-back State Championships during the course of sustaining an average record of 21-4 over an eleven-year coaching span. But Martelli, already a graduate of Saint Joseph's Prep School where he played back court with eventual Cavalier and Jazz Guard Mo Howard, would look into the eyes of Hawks coach Jack McKinney and envision himself as one day being hired for that very job.
In Memorial Stadium, Widener College's Football field, quarterback (and shortstop, and eventual Phillies and Texas Rangers draftee) Ken O'Brien would take a snap from eventual New York Jet center Joe Fields. O'Brien would roll right with Running Back Billy White Shoes trailing him by 5 yards. O'Brien had the option to run. If that did not seem appealing to him, he'd pitch back to either Donnie Watkins or Johnson, and block. It might have been a rubber-legs wobble in the NFL. But in college, the celebration was a rapid paced running in place. He wore the white shoes even at Widener.
At the Bernard Schwartz Center where the Pioneers played basketball, Phil Martelli was the point guard, playmaker and a consensus on-the-floor leader. Teammate Mark Tucker, small forward after Hargadon graduated, recalls that Martelli, even as a player, was always a coach. "He was always three steps ahead of everybody else." According to strong forward Tom Mann, "All he ever talked about was being a coach." Center Dennis Woodbury was impressed that "he maintained an air of confidence about himself, even when things didn't go as planned." Martelli's coach, C. Alan Rowe calls Martelli "a coach on the floor. I never had to call a time out to set up a play."
Rowe stressed defense above all else; his favorite defense was the 1-3-1 zone. Widener College basketball games were frequently low scoring contests. In Martelli's playing days, there was no 35-second clock and a major underdog would sometimes shorten the game with a freeze - holding the ball for a few minutes or even longer each possession before taking a shot. As I would report the score following a game, the Wire Service would frequently ask me which team called for a freeze. The answer was always, "Neither." Widener's zone was very effective tonight. The other team had held the ball for a minute per possession, not to freeze the ball, but rather because that is how long it took them to get a shot.
Before the 35-second clock, a team with the lead and the ball could demand that the defense come out of the zone or else be charged with a Technical Foul for "lack of action." But if Widener was ahead, the opposing offense was required to contend with the zone. One night, Widener's zone was particularly effective. When Widener finally fell back by a single point, Widener showed that they also played a tough man-to-man, which made the zone that much more effective: As the opposing point guard dribbled up court, he glared at Martelli, motioned to him to come toward him, and arrogantly screamed, "Now! Come on out here!" Martelli did come out, stripped the ball, scored a lay-up, and Widener was able to go back into zone for the remainder of the night.
Rowe was a nationally recognized expert in the 1-3-1 zone. The three biggest players would play across the middle; Martelli would take the key, and the remaining guard would play underneath. Martelli's assignment was to force the man bringing the ball up court either to the left or to the right. Once forced, the nearest of the three big men would join Martelli in a tough defense. One version of the 1-3-1 was to have Phil trap with the wing players to force an interception of the escape pass, or simply to steal the ball. Rowe was invited to hold clinics for other coaches on how to play his version of the 1-3-1. Some coaches would call him and ask him to put it in for their team.
Rowe's reason for stressing defense was simple: You're never out of the game. By contrast, a team that thrives on its shooting sets themselves up to be blown out whenever they have a poor shooting night. Rarely does a well-trained defense break down that completely. By holding a team to 50 points, your offense is usually within one or two turnovers of catching up - even on an off night. Rowe elaborates, "You can always control the defense. You can't always control the offense and your shooting"
The Widener mascot was the Pioneer, and in many ways that fit Martelli nicely. As a note of irony, Widener wasn't even called the Pioneers until the year that Martelli arrived. Widener College was a reinvention of the Pennsylvania Military College, and a civilian counterpart, Penn Morton College. Together, the two colleges formed the PMC Colleges using the nickname, Cadets. With Martelli's enrollment, the two colleges blended to form the Widener College Pioneers. Back-court mate Jimmy Coyle reflects on Martelli: "He was always thinking pass first. He got more of a thrill out of ball handling and passing than he did out of scoring." Teammate Vince Shervin, strong forward after Mann graduated, recalls that having Martelli on his team was like having an on-court coach. "He was a real floor general; he kept the team in control."
Two years after graduating, Martelli returned to Widener College for one year as a hired Assistant Coach. He is remembered as one who could communicate effectively with the players - some of whom were former teammates. Today, Martelli teammate and coachee Mark Tucker can watch Saint Joseph's games, and see Rowe's defensive influence. "It's in the way they put pressure on the ball. Of course every coach likes to put pressure on the ball. But the key is to teach it correctly." As you watch the Hawks play defense, Tucker suggests, "Watch the big men and where they are positioned. They are in the right position to make the play."
The year that Martelli returned, Widener went on to the NCAA Division 3 Final Four, and advanced to the championship game by beating now-Division 1 Stony Brook. The Pioneers won 21 games in a row, including a win over eventual Division 2 NCAA champions Cheyney State, coached by now-Temple head coach John Chaney. David Ordille, the point guard on offense and baseline guard on defense for the Final Four team, came to Widener too late to be a teammate of Martelli. But he remembers Phil with great respect as a coach. "In reality, we were only a few years apart. But when I considered the quality of leadership he showed, it was easy to forget he was really just my age."
The best way to attack a zone is to shoot over it. Though that strategy was rarely invoked prior to the three-point line, that's exactly what the North Park College Vikings (Illinois) did in the championship game, and the Pioneers settled for a championship game 69-57 loss. Michael Harper, eventually of the Portland Trail Blazers, at 6' 10" positioned himself underneath, and their twenty to thirty foot shots were going in. In the 1980-81 NBA drafts, the North Park team that defeated Widener would see four of their teammates selected.
Today, Martelli is remembered by his teammates as a jokester, and as a walking sports almanac. He's remembered as an organizer - frequently the coordinator of the team's social events; and as a friend - he invited the entire Final Four team to his wedding. He is also remembered as an on-the-floor innovator. Teammate Jimmy Fitzpatrick once headed down court anticipating a fast break pass from Martelli. Martelli rolled the ball - a perfect bowling strike - to Fitzpatrick at the top of the key, right-side, who went in for an easy uncontested lay up. Only a scoring technicality deprived Martelli an Assist: Fitzpatrick missed the shot.
As teammate and continuing close friend Jamie Hargadon reflects on Martelli: "He did have a reputation as a jokester, but he was much more than that. He would laugh at himself and wise-crack with others, but underneath he was always a caring and concerned person wanting to make everyone around him better. Phil is a firm believer of making the most of each situation. He plays every day, game, season and year to the best of his ability.
"Phil's dream was always to be the head coach at Saint Joseph's. But as we all know, good players do not always make good coaches. The key to Phil's successful transition and development from player to coach was his collective experiences as an assistant to Coach Rowe, as a head coach in the Philadelphia Catholic League, and his many years spent as a Saint Joseph's assistant coach." Pat Knapp, as well as University of Connecticut ladies' head coach Geno Auriemma also developed their coaching experience from the Philadelphia Catholic League.
Martelli's back-court mate, Jimmy Coyle the shooting guard and the baseline guard on defense, was a great outside shooter and a key factor with Martelli setting the school Assist record. Coyle scored his career high 31 points in the same game that he went over 1,000 points for the season. "Everything I threw up went in the basket that game." Martelli-to-Coyle led Widener into the NCAA Division 3 Tournament during their Junior and Senior years together.
The center on the team was Dennis Woodbury, who blocked out the middle of the zone, and collapsed underneath whenever the baseline guard rolled to the corner. This put him in perfect position to assert himself as a team leader in Blocked Shots. On the occasion when the opposing guard would break Martelli down off the dribble, he was met by the outstretched arms of the 6' 7" Woodbury. Martelli could play his position aggressively because he knew that Woodbury was right there behind him.
The strong forward was 6' 6" Tom Mann, who also played a wing position and trap forward on defense. Mann would also play the middle of the 1-3-1 when Woodbury was out of the game. He was versatile, being used primarily for power. But he was also an effective rebounder, and when necessary, a reliable inside scorer. Further, Coach Rowe assigned Mann the job of protecting the basket when Woodbury would come forward to block the lane. Mann and Martelli played all four years together and were co-captains during their mutual senior year.
Small forward was played by Jamie Hargadon, the definition of a student athlete. On one occasion, Martelli passed the ball over the time line to Hargadon, who promptly passed it back to Martelli - the easiest back court call a referee ever got to whistle. Martelli handed the ball to the ref and shouted, "Jamie, that was stupid!" Perhaps for the moment, Martelli was correct. But those words were rarely spoken of Hargadon; he graduated with honors with a triple major in Economics, Business and Accounting. Today, he is an Executive Vice President for Okidata.
In June 1976, Phil Martelli walked the stage, and graduated to generous applause. The graduation ceremony was on the Memorial Stadium gridiron - the same plot of ground that Billy Johnson once scored six touchdowns in one game. A year earlier, after a commencement address about a vision for our future from novelist James A. Michener, Johnson had walked that very stage. He returned to Widener after his rookie season with the Houston Oilers to receive his history degree to thunderous applause. Hargadon and Knapp joined that graduating class, Knapp receiving his degree with a double major in history and education.
Most of the 250 or so students that graduated that day did graduate to at least polite applause - parents screaming out making sure their son or daughter got the recognition they deserved. Some graduates are better known than others, and their broad popularity is made evident. Some graduate in silence, until someone graciously acknowledges how inappropriate that is, and starts an applause of their own. Fraternity brothers appear out of the woodwork to cheer their brothers.
But today was Phil Martelli's day. Athletes, especially the successful ones, usually do get one last expression of appreciation from their fans. And Phil wasn't alone; he had the core of the Widener Pioneer basketball team walking with him: James Coyle with a major in Accounting, now a Systems Analyst for Unisys; Thomas Mann with a double major in Sociology and Psychology, now Group Living Director at Glen Mills Schools; Dennis Woodbury with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, now President of Woodbury Construction; and Phil Martelli, with a major in Political Science, now head coach of the 2004 Elite Eight Saint Joseph's Hawks.