The affinity toward the University of Notre Dame still shines through in Miami (Ohio) fourth-year head coach Chuck Martin, as does the trademark sense of humor.
Thus, to bring his RedHawks to Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday will be the ultimate bittersweet experience for the 49-yeard-old who served under Brian Kelly first at Grand Valley State from 2000-03 and then at Notre Dame from 2010-13.
“I’m almost 50 years old and I’ve never not rooted for Notre Dame a day in my life,” Martin shared during his teleconference on Monday. “Saturday at 5 o’clock I’m going to be rooting against Notre Dame, so that will be a little bit awkward for me.”
He admitted he didn’t seriously reflect about this moment when the game was scheduled, but Martin knows he did want the people at Miami to experience the Notre Dame campus, and is ardently lobbying for them to make the trip to campus a day or two before the game to get the full experience of the entire school.
Furthermore, he will have his team tour the sights, including Sacred Heart Basilica and the Grotto, the day before the game.
“We’ve got to get there Friday and show them the venue and show them the campus just so on Saturday they’re not, ‘Oh, my God, look at this place,’ ” Martin said. “We’ve got to get all the, ‘Hey, this place is really cool’ out of the way on Friday so we can just focus in and play on Saturday.
“If you’re a sports fan at all, we have the opportunity to go to play, in my opinion, the most storied venue in the history of sports. I was fortunate to be on the other side of that storied venue for four years — and even before that for 40 some years as a fan I was on that side.”
The Chicago native said his love affair with the school began in 1973 when as a five-year-old he watched Notre Dame’s 24-23 Sugar Bowl win versus Alabama to win the national title. The head coach then was Ara Parseghian, whose funeral Martin attended this August at Notre Dame's Sacred Heart Basilica. Miami (Ohio) just happens to be the alma mater of Parseghian.
In between winning two Division II national titles under Kelly and helping lead the Irish to the BCS national title game against Alabama as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2012, Martin experienced his own immense success as a head coach when he succeeded Kelly at GVSU. From 2004-09 Martin posted a 74-7 record, highlighted by national titles in 2005 and 2006, and losing in the championship in 2009 before joining Kelly at Notre Dame.
When Martin was hired by Kelly at GVSU in 2000, the Lakers were at their nadir in Kelly’s nine seasons after finishing 5-5 in 1999. The first year with Martin improved to 7-4 — still the second-most losses in a season under Kelly — and then records of 13-1, 14-0 and 14-1 ensued, with the two national titles.
In that transition, Kelly went from a pro-style offense to a spread that better fit his personnel. When Kelly reached rock bottom last season in year 7 at Notre Dame with a 4-8 record and made sweeping changes, Martin sensed the Irish would soon rise again in spite of all the hot-seat and the-sky-is-falling conversation that hovered about Kelly’s future.
“The thing about him that is unique I think is he can always keep a clear mind and make clear decisions,” Martin said. “He always has assessed his teams and his organization and looked at all phases on and off the field, and he’s always been able to sit back and make clear decisions.”
When necessary, Kelly can roll with change and adapt, according to Martin. And while he lauds Kelly's football I.Q, as a strategist, he believes Kelly is even better at outlining a blueprint for a program and dealing with adjustments.
“He’s been changing for years subtly,” Martin said. “He doesn’t change his big-picture values, he doesn’t change who he is, but looking at his team and what his team needs and what his organization [needs]… He’s the best off-the-field head coach in the world. He’s better at figuring things out for his organization — and that’s what I really tried to do here.”
Martin inherited an 0-12 RedHawks program that needed to be gutted and reconstructed, improving from 2-10 to his first year to 3-9 his second. An 0-6 start in 2016 left him 5-25 after two-and-a-half seasons — and Miami (Ohio) 5-37 overall in the Class of ’17.
And then Martin and the RedHawks made NCAA history, becoming the first team to go from 0-6 to 6-6 to earn a bid to the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they took SEC member and 15-point favorite Mississippi State to the brink before losing 17-16 when a short field-goal attempt was blocked to end the game.
Although busy schedules have limited their contact in recent years, Martin said Kelly to him is like his parents in that he is someone he can always reference as a guide on how to manage a football team or deal with setbacks.
“I know if I ever need something, I call Brian Kelly,” Martin said. “In most situations I don’t need to call him… I don’t really need to call Brian Kelly to get his opinion — I pretty much know Brian Kelly’s opinion on everything.”
The admiration extends to how Kelly deals with the immense scrutiny that comes with the Notre Dame position. Martin recalled how even when the Irish football players did charity work such as have their hair shaved for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to aid cancer research for children, the local “paparazzi” would be present.
“That was a place where every time you breathed or sneezed, somebody was writing something,” Martin chuckled. “It’s insane. It doesn’t matter what we do, there’s somebody watching us. The enormity of Notre Dame and the pressure that goes along with it, you have to be a pretty confident dude to be able to deal with that on a daily basis.”
Watching Notre Dame this year, Martin believes the Irish will become more and more lethal collectively as the season progresses, especially because of the presence and versatility of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
“He can bring things to the table that maybe other quarterbacks couldn’t,” Martin said. “…Using his legs more than other QBs in the past. He’s got such a strong arm, so he can make every stinkin’ throw look easy.”
While Martin acknowledges there will be some physical mismatches in certain areas with his team against Notre Dame, he does not believe that the moment will be too big for his three-touchdown underdog RedHawks. Part of the reasoning is they’ve been through enough fire to have forged steel.
Two weeks ago, Martin’s RedHawks led rival Cincinnati 17-6 with 4:45 left in the contest, but self-inflicted wounds resulted in a 21-17 defeat that Martin said was the most difficult by far in his 25 years of coaching.
He was concerned how his squad would respond in a tough road game last week at Central Michigan, but they took a 28-7 first-half lead en route to a 31-14 victory to reaffirm their status as favorites this year in the Mid-American Conference.
“I told the team yesterday we’re kind of like the dumb, tough kid at school — like, we don’t know no better,” Martin said. “We’ve been through a lot rebuilding this thing and some of these kids have been through football purgatory with what they had to go through a couple of years to get to this point.
“Physically, at times I think we will be overwhelmed at certain positions [against Notre Dame] and you can’t really do nothing about that. I think they’re realistic. I don’t have kids that aren’t going to go in there and think Notre Dame’s not very good.
“They know Notre Dame’s really good, they know we have an uphill battle, but at the same point I think they’re excited about going to play, seeing what we can get done and see how many plays we can make against them.
“We’re the kind of kid that you beat us up on Monday, we show up for school Tuesday — we want to fight you again. It’s just their mentality.”
Another example of a team taking on the personality of its coach.