By Steve Kelly
It has been a terrible week for the Big 5.
Not only did Temple go out early in the NCAA dance, but that was coach Fran Dunphy’s last game.
Dunphy was pushed into retirement by Temple, but at least the school allowed him a final victory lap this season, in which he was able to take his team to the NCAA tournament.
Saint Joseph’s didn’t see fit to give Phil Martelli at least one more lap around town. Hours before the NCAA tournament began Tuesday, the school announced it had fired Martelli after 24 seasons as head coach and 34 years at the school.
“They fired Phil Martelli?” CBS’s Dan Bonner said upon hearing the news. “How do you fire Phil Martelli? That’s impossible.”
It was first-year athletic director Jill Bodensteiner who made the announcement, but there is no way this could have happened without the approval of school president Mark Reed and the board of trustees.
College athletics nowadays isn’t what have you done for me lately, but what have you done for me today.
Martelli, 64, took the Hawks to seven NCAA tournaments, most recently in 2016, when they went 28-8 and won the Atlantic 10 tournament. But rumors were rife this season that, with a new athletic director and a relatively new president, Martelli’s job might be in jeopardy.
The Hawks had three straight seasons at .500 or below, including an injury-hampered 14-19 mark this winter. Still, one would have thought that Martelli’s iconic status at the school and in Philadelphia would have bought him at least one more year to turn things around.
The Hawks will lose only one senior who played serious minutes, return their three leading scorers and add transfer Ryan Daly and incoming freshman Jameer Nelson Jr.
Nelson’s father was the point guard on the Saint Joseph’s team that became national darlings in 2004, going undefeated in the regular season while being ranked No. 1 for much of that winter. The Hawks came up just short of the Final Four, losing to Oklahoma State on a jumper by John Lucas III in the final seconds.
Martelli did more for Saint Joseph’s than win games (444 in all). His TV show, “HawkTalk,” made him a cult star. The show, with bracketologist Joe Lunardi playing Ed McMahon to Martelli’s Johnny Carson, was fall-down funny, the polar opposite of the typical “we’re so proud of our student-athletes” coach’s show.
Martelli and Dunphy are lifelong Big 5 guys. Dunphy, 70, played at La Salle and then coached at Penn for 17 years, winning nine Ivy League titles. He took over a floundering Temple program in 2006 and got the Owls to the NCAA tournament in his second season, the first of six straight appearances. Last season, after going 17-16 and missing the NCAA tournament for a second straight year, Temple decided this would be Dunphy’s last season and named assistant Aaron McKie as coach-in-waiting.
Dunphy’s coaching colleagues were outraged by the decision. Dunphy has never said a word publicly — or, according to friends, even privately — about the unfairness of it all.
“I’ve had a great run,” he said earlier this season. “No regrets about anything. I love what I do.”
Instead of sulking, Dunphy led his team to a 23-10 record this season and another trip to the NCAA tournament. He arrived in Dayton for Tuesday’s game with 580 career wins.
Dunphy isn’t likely to leave Philadelphia. Not only is it home, but his first grandchild was born a little more than a year ago. But don’t expect him to not coach again.
The same is true of Martelli. He also has grandchildren who live in Philly, but it is difficult to imagine him not coaching. As for Saint Joseph’s, it’s anybody’s guess whom it expects to get who could be any better of a coach or ambassador for the school.
Dunphy and Martelli have worked tirelessly for the Coaches vs. Cancer charitable program. In fact, Martelli hosted a fundraising breakfast Monday.
Three years ago, after the Hawks’ most recent championship season, media members who cover the Big Five selected Martelli as their coach of the year. When Martelli was presented with the award at the Big Five’s annual postseason luncheon, he took the microphone and said: “This is very nice of all of you. But, once again, I’m going to save you from embarrassment. Jay Wright just won the national championship. How can he not be the Big Five coach of the year?”
With that, he called Villanova’s coach to the podium and handed him the award.
It was the kind of scene that is unique to Philadelphia basketball — you don’t get that feeling of competitive camaraderie in any other city in the country.
Nine years ago, when Herb Magee, who has coached at Division II Jefferson University (formerly Philadelphia Textile and Philadelphia University) since 1967, was about to surpass Bob Knight on the all-time wins list, four Big Five coaches showed up to wish him luck before the game. Only Glenn Miller, then of Penn, who was out of town, didn’t make an appearance.
“You think I’d miss this?” Dunphy said that night. “Herb is the hoops legend in this town.”
Magee is certainly a legend, but so are Dunphy and Martelli. They are two of the class acts in all of college basketball.
It’s a shame their schools didn’t see fit to let them go out on their own terms. Both of them certainly earned that.