His explanation was simple.
“For people who don’t know me, it probably makes no sense — at least not on paper,” Chuck Martin said as a faint smile appeared. “But the people who do, they didn’t even blink. They know I’m half-crazy.”
On paper, his move from Notre Dame to Miami University this football season didn’t paint him so much as half-crazy as it did full-blown nuts:
• He left what may be the most famous football program in America — a BCS giant that played in the national championship game two years ago — to take over the worst team in Division I football last season.
Saddled with 16 straight losses, Miami is tied with Georgia State for the longest losing streak in major college football. The RedHawks went 0-12 last year, losing by an average of 25.9 points.
• He was making $650,000 a year as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame and took a $200,000 pay cut to come to Oxford.
• He likely could have used the Miami offer as leverage for a better contract at Notre Dame and — as one of college football’s hottest coaching prospects — he almost certainly could have held out for a more lucrative deal at another school. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco left Notre Dame in December to take over at UConn, where he’ll get $1.5 million a year plus bonuses.
To all this, Martin simply shakes his head: “Look, if it was about money, I certainly wouldn’t be at Miami.”
So, is he rich? Can he take a $200,000 hit?
“No, I’m not rich,” he said. “But my family and I are doing all right. I live in a nicer house than the one I grew up in.”
Pressed further, he made his decision seem like it was as plain as the nose on his face.
That nose, by the way, has a noticeable sway to it. It’s not as battered as Larry Csonka’s, or even Owen Wilson’s, but you got the sense it’s been rearranged a time or two.
“Twice,” Martin said with a shrug. “The first time I was a (crappy) option quarterback in high school. I was running, a guy hit me, my chin strap came off and then another guy tackled me and I landed on my nose. That didn’t feel great.
“And the second time? I don’t really remember.”
Then again why should he? His football career is not measured by face plants, but instead by the way he’s reached the pinnacle of football, time and again.
That was especially the case when he was the head coach at Grand Valley State, the Division II school in Michigan he led to two national titles (2005, 2006) and a national runner up (2009) in his six years as head coach. In that span, he amassed an all-time NCAA Division II record with 40 straight wins.
Then came four years at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly and the success there has added to his confidence that he can turn Miami around.
“Do we have a chance to be the best MAC (Mid-American Conference) team this year?” he asked, then answered. “No. We know that. We’re realistic, not ridiculous. But if you say who has the best chance to be the best MAC team in 2018, I think Miami does.
“I can recruit the best student-athletes. We can offer more than a lot of schools. We’ve got a better tradition than every team in the league. And I’ve got a pretty good track record. So long term, why can’t we be successful?”
And when that happens, he said it will be good for his family, too. He said his wife agrees.
“Here’s how it works with us. I trust her on 99 percent of the household decisions. She decides where we’re moving. Where the kids are going to go to school. Where we’re gonna eat. She basically just tells me and I trust her.
“And for 20 years she has trusted me on our life as far as my profession goes. So if we turn this around in five years from now, how is our life not better off? The rest of my resume is pretty good and if I add that to it, I’ve made myself pretty damned marketable.”
Martin knows Dayton.
He was an All-American safety and placekicker for the Millikin University team that met the Dayton Flyers in an NCAA Division III playoff game in late November 1989.
“My first memory of Dayton was my worst one,” he said. “It was my last football game ever in college. It was at Welcome Stadium. Dayton beat us 28-16. They went on to win the Division III national title and my career was over.”
By 1992 he was a graduate assistant coach at Mankato State. Two years later he was the linebackers coach at Wittenberg.
“I got to know Coach (Mike) Kelly and Coach (Rick) Chamberlin at Dayton then,” he said. “Dayton was 1-AA non-scholarship, but we still recruited against them a ton and for a lot of kids it came down to Dayton or us.”
He started to laugh: “Dayton was a pain in the you know what for me back then.”
After two years with Wittenberg, he went back to Millikin, then coached linebackers two years at Eastern Michigan — “we came in to Oxford one time when Miami had Travis Prentice and we got our heads handed to us,” he said — before going to Grand Valley as Brian Kelly’s assistant in 2000. He took over the Lakers program in 2004 and by the time he left for Notre Dame, he had compiled a 74-9 record.
After four seasons with the Irish he said he wanted to be a head coach again and he saw several parallels between Notre Dame and Miami:
“Miami is an educational school. Kids go to class, get degrees, take real majors, which is rare at the Division I level. And if they don’t make money playing sports, they make money doing something with their education.
“Another similarity is that Miami takes so much pride in its football tradition.”
Miami’s Cradle of Coaches reputation — be it from the sideline or the playing field — has included the likes of Paul Brown, Earl Blaik, Weeb Ewbank, Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, Sid Gillman, Bill Mallory, Carm Cozza, Paul Dietzel, John Pont, John McVay, Bill Arnsparger, John Mackovic, Jim Tressel, John Harbaugh and Sean Payton.
The RedHawks are first, all-time, in MAC victories and titles, No. 18 in all-time winning percentage among the nation’s Division I schools and No. 24 in all-time victories.
But the days of beating the likes of Florida, Purdue and South Carolina — Miami defeated all three in 1973 — or even the glory times of Ben Roethlisberger a decade past are a fading memory.
Miami has had one winning record in the past eight seasons and in four of those years the team won two or fewer games. Last season was the worst. Miami finished 122nd of 123 Division I teams in total offense and 113th on defense.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people, Cradle guys and just alums, and they all say we’ve got to get it going because they’re kind of PO’d,” Martin said. “They say they’ll help any way they can, but they let you know, ‘You got to get it going.’ ”
That’s why Miami AD David Salyer hired Martin last December.
In turn, Martin has added seven assistants — on a nine-man staff — with whom he’s worked before.
“There’s going to be a process and realistically there are going to be more down times before it turns, so I’ve got to have guys who are scratching and clawing and won’t blink,” he said. “If we don’t win 10 games, I don’t want guys jumping to get another job.”
He also brought along three players from Notre Dame — quarterback Andrew Hendrix, who’s originally from Cincinnati Moeller High School, tight end Alex Welch from Cincinnati Elder and defensive back Lo Wood from Florida.
All three played sparingly at Notre Dame and graduated this past spring. They had one year of eligibility remaining and all three figure to start at Miami.
Feeling their pain
One of Martin’s more celebrated commitments to Miami was wide receiver Sam Martin (no relation) from Fairview High in Boulder, Colo. Last season he set single-season state records with catches (112) and receiving yards (1,860).
Then, just before the national signing day, he announced via Twitter that he had changed his mind and was going to Rutgers instead.
That’s when Chuck Martin said he got him on the phone:
“It was a fairly one-sided conversation about his decision. Then Coach Brechin (receivers coach Bill Brechin) followed up with another long talk that was more cordial than mine.
“Sam had kept saying he wants to play at the next level one day and I said, ‘Well, if you think the guys at Rutgers can prepare you better than my staff, you should go there. But I think after four years with us, you’ll have a better chance to get drafted. We have a pretty good record of developing kids.’
“He sat down with his parents and when they factored in the education he’s going to get here, too, Miami was a better fit.”
That give-no-quarter attitude is something Hendrix became familiar with playing for Martin at Notre Dame.
“He believes in his foundation, his principles and he takes his coaching personally,” said Hendrix. “You run a bad route or throw a bad ball, that’s an insult to him and insult to the rest of the team and he’s going to be on you for that. And these guys are hungry for that. Everybody’s tired of losing.”
No one feels that more than RedHawks’ junior linebacker Kent Kern, who was one of the team’s only bright spots last season. He led Miami in tackles and was a second-team All-MAC selection.
“We just want to have a team that no one is ever gonna laugh about again,” he said. “And last year I think people were laughing at us. I would have laughed, too, if I was a fan watching a team go 0-12. For us as players though, it was tough to take.”
Martin sees some of the leftover scars from last season: “Some days I think they’re really hungry and some days I think they’re still shell-shocked. They’re probably somewhere in between most of the time. They are coming off a tough, tough situation. They’re gaining confidence in themselves, but they still have a lot of skeletons in the closet.
“The beauty of college sports – especially football and basketball – is how much the whole world loves it. It’s a billion dollar business. People can’t get enough of it. But the negative side is that, because it’s so important, if a guy has a bad catch or a bad throw — let alone an 0-16 streak — the campus hates you, the fan base hates you. And people end up forgetting that these are just kids.”
While tending to those wounds, he’s trying to build a team that is tough and smart: “I want us to be a team that goes after you whether we’re strong enough or not yet.
“We will be more competitive than last year. When you lose games by 25 points you’re not competitive. It’s almost hopeless.
“So the first part for us is to get games to halftime. That way when the other team comes out of the locker room it’s thinking, ‘Miami could beat us today.’ At the same time, we come out and think, ‘If we do this, this and this we can win this game.’
“Then it’s taking the game into the fourth quarter. After that we have a chance to win a few close ones. And once we win one, then we know how it feels and we can do it again. And we work to get Miami back to where it once was.”
That said, he admitted Cradle of Coaches’ glory from days long past doesn’t always resonate with kids today: “I don’t think a lot of them get that part of it. They don’t know who Bo Schembechler is — sad as that is. If he’s not on Xbox, they don’t know him.”
But, he said, they do know what Schembechler did to get to Michigan. And Parseghian to Notre Dame and Ewbanks to the New York Jets:
“They all understand what winning can do for you.”
And so does he.
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