Over the years, Phil Martelli, the astute, veteran coach of Saint Joseph’s, has had a surprise or two for Archie Miller when their two teams have met, but this time he really caught the Dayton Flyers coach off guard.
It happened just before Tuesday’s game at UD Arena and left Miller, in his words, saying:
“What’s he doing THERE?”
As Dayton was readying to meet the Hawks, Miller was sent a photo by his wife. Taken at Incarnation School in Centerville, it shows the nattily-suited Martelli with his arm around the Miller’s smiling daughter, Leah, who is a sixth grader at the school.
The meeting happened quite by chance.
“Yeah, believe it or not, I went to her school today,” Martelli said with a smile Tuesday evening. “A guy there is a St. Joe’s grad and he contacted me and asked if I’d bring the team out.
“I said, ‘No, not on a game day.’ And I never do anything on the day of a game either, but then I thought, ‘You know what? For kids, I’ll go there and speak to the class.’
“And when she walked in, they said, ‘That’s Archie’s daughter.’ I said, ‘I’d like to meet her.’”
He started to laugh: “I asked her not to boo tonight.”
And Tuesday night there was no need to as the Flyers opened up a 14-point lead over the depleted St. Joe’s squad with 8:38 left in the second half and then held on for a 77-70 victory.
The victory marked just the third time in nine meetings that a Miller-coached Flyers team has bested Martelli’s Hawks.
When the game ended and the customary exchange of handshakes began, you witnessed sincere mutual respect, not only between the two head coaches, but when Martelli approached a couple of the veteran UD players.
Flyers senior point guard Scoochie Smith was one of the first Martelli approached.
“He reached out and touched the No. 5 patch on my jersey,” Smith said in reference to remembrance the UD players wear above their hearts to honor Big Steve McElvene, the ever-smiling, 6-foot-11 Flyers center who died suddenly last May of an enlarged heart.
“First of all, I wanted to touch Steve’s number,” Martelli said quietly afterward. “I didn’t know him that well, but that touched my heart for a team to go through something like that. I tried to stay in touch with Archie then without being intrusive.”
Miller won’t ever forget:
“He’s a good man and I respect the heck out of him. He was the first guy to call me when Steve passed away. He had the opportunity to meet Steve a couple of times and he had some really nice things to say about him.
“He’s been really good to us over the years.”
A nod to UD’s seniors
Although that was the case again Tuesday, immediately after the game – as he stood outside his team’s dressing room in the underbelly of UD Arena – it took Martelli awhile to get through what had just transpired.
When it was suggested his 10-13 team – missing three starters, one to season-ending injury, two to illness – had played hard, he showed disrelish for such thought and swatted it aside the way his 6-foot-7 sophomore Markell Lodge had smacked a couple of Flyers shots straight off the court.
“I just put on the board in there that we came here to ‘WIN,’” said Martelli, who had given his team a heated assessment of their play afterward. “Early on we played a little nervous with seven turnovers and down the stretch we missed some assignments. I’m bitterly disappointed that we lost… It’s just….”
His voice trailed off to a half-whisper: “I just can’t stand losing.”
But his mood lifted when he was asked about the heartfelt exchanges in the handshake line, especially when he approached Smith and fellow senior, Kendall Pollard.
“I wanted to thank Scoochie and Pollard,” Martelli said. “It might be the last time I see them, unless our paths cross in Pittsburgh (at the Atlantic 10 Tournament.) It was important to me. Those seniors – all the seniors – I wanted to be sure that they knew that, as the aaah….the elder statesman in the league, I appreciate them.”
Pollard, who scored a team-high 19 points and went seven for nine from the free throw. line said: “He told me, ‘Way to make those free throws at the end.’”
As Martelli put it: “I told him I was glad he was healthy again and that he looked great. He now looks like that all-league player we thought.”
Martelli especially embraced Smith.
“He just wanted to show his respect for me as a player,” Smith said. “He said I worked hard and he wanted to show his appreciation for my love of the game.”
Martelli said he appreciated Smith’s leadership: “He’s in the perfect place, playing for the perfect coach and he represents the league in such a positive fashion. There is no bull (crap.) No waving to the crowd. With him, it’s honor. The game is played with honor.”
‘Big fan’ of Archie Miller
Over the past few decades, no one has held college basketball any more dearly than Martelli, who learned what the game was really about as he rose from the bottom up.
Raised in Philadelphia, he played Division III basketball at Widener University, then coached JV basketball before a seven-year head coaching stint at Bishop Kenrick High School in Philadelphia.
Finally, he was given a restricted-earnings assistantship at St. Joe’s and taught reform school on the side. After 10 years as a Hawks’ assistant, he was offered the head coaching job.
It’s an opportunity he has never forgotten in his 22 years at the helm of the Hawks, a team he has led to a 413-286 record and 13 NCAA and NIT postseason appearances while being named A-10 Coach of the Year four times and national coach of the year once.
“When I first got in the league, obviously me being a very young coach, he offered nothing but tremendous advice and communication all along,” said the 38-year-old Miller. “We haven’t had a whole lot of success against him, but otherwise he’s been really good to us. He’s a guy who takes a lot of pride in the league and the kids in the league.”
Martelli said he’s “a big fan” of Miller:
“I think he’s a wonderful guy and that his team plays at a beautiful pace. They play really nice basketball and they are hard to prepare for.
“Again I use the word – I think Archie’s an honorable guy. I read his comments and how he appreciates the opportunity he has in Dayton and this environment.
“And this (the game experience at UD Arena) is right, you know what I mean? This is right for the Atlantic 10, this is right for college basketball.
“Even the fans, there’s nothing derogatory toward our players. They cheer for their team.
“In today’s world – outside of basketball – that’s not always (the case.) I’m glad we get to compete in this environment.”
The comments didn’t surprise Miller: “He’s always been a big advocate of us and our program.”
Even so, it surprised Scoochie when he heard that Martelli had been the guest speaker at Archie’s daughter’s class before the game.
“Man,” he said with a grin. “He must really be trying to get Flyers fans to love him.”
Whether that’s the case or not, one thing was certain:
Tuesday night, Leah Miller did not boo.
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