Feinstein: Fran Dunphy, Phil Martelli Deserved Better

Temple and St. Joseph's are making changes; John Feinstein wishes both schools had waited a little longer

John Feinstein
March 20, 2019 - 4:07 pm
Fran Dunphy Temple NCAA Tournament

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DAYTON, Ohio -- It was almost midnight on Tuesday when Fran Dunphy walked out of an interview room for the final time as Temple’s basketball coach. When he reached the ramp inside Dayton Arena that led to his locker room, I was one of a handful of reporters waiting for him.

“How are you?” he said, shaking hands as if that was somehow relevant at that moment.

“More important,” I said, “how are YOU?”
 
He forced a smile. “I’ve had better days.”

And then he added, “I’m just sick about Phil.”

This was classic Dunphy. He had just lost what will probably be the final game of a wonderful coaching career, and his first postgame thoughts were about his close friend Phil Martelli, who had been fired that day by St. Joseph’s after 24 years as head coach; 34 years in all working for the school.

I felt pretty sick about the entire day myself. Because I’m old, I’ve known a lot of coaches for a lot of years. I’ve known Dunphy since he was one of Gary Williams’ assistant coaches at American in the 1980s. I’ve only known Martelli since early in his tenure as the boss at St. Joseph’s. So, close to 25 years.

They tell you when you’re a kid reporter that you should remain “objective” at all times. That’s not only a myth, but it’s impossible. Years ago, when I taught a journalism class at Duke, that was the first thing I told my students: we’re all biased, but what we should always try to do is be fair.

I won’t try for a second to claim that I’m not biased where Dunphy and Martelli are concerned. They’ve both been excellent coaches for a long time: Dunphy won ten Ivy League titles in 17 seasons at Penn before taking over at Temple in 2006. The program had faded in John Chaney’s final years—it hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament for five seasons.
         
Dunphy got the Owls back into the tournament in his second year and then for six straight seasons. After a couple of near misses—including being one of the last four out in 2015, he got the Owls back into the NCAA’s in two of the last four seasons. But he never reached a Sweet 16, getting out of the first round three times in 18 appearances.
         
That became the driving force behind those at Temple who wanted a new coach. They began calling him, “one-and-done-Dunphy,” comparing him to Chaney, who reached the Elite Eight five times, but never got to the Final Four. Even so, Chaney is—deservedly—in the Hall of Fame.
         
Dunphy was victimized by Temple’s constant attempts to somehow matter in football. Former President Peter Liacouras, for whom the basketball arena is named, once declared that it was his goal to see Temple’s football team play in the Sugar Bowl. The Owls have actually done that— playing in the Louisiana Superdome when they play at Tulane.
         
Temple went from the Atlantic-10 conference – a perfect basketball home for the school – to the Big East and then, when the Big East broke up, to the far-flung American Athletic Conference. Nothing like recruiting kids by promising them games against Tulane, South Florida and SMU. Oh sure, Cincinnati and Houston have good teams, but seriously?
         
Dunphy never complained about Temple’s football obsession, he just kept coaching. After his first year he had ONE losing season the next 12.
         
Ultimately, it wasn’t good enough for Temple people. Villanova was winning national titles. That was the bar, even though Temple and Villanova are completely different schools in every possible way.
         
Martelli also had a Villanova problem. St. Joseph’s people are obsessed with Villanova. Martelli became a huge star nationally in 2004 when the Hawks went 30-2 and missed making the Final Four by inches. His coach’s show, “Hawk Talk,” was wildly entertaining, the complete opposite of the usual droning coach’s show. Martelli was Johnny Carson, bracketologist Joe Lunardi—who works at St. Joe’s—his Ed McMahon.
         
There was success after ’04 but never again at that level. The Hawks won Atlantic-10 titles in 2014 and 2016 but in-between there were a handful of losing seasons, including this winter’s 14-19.
         
A year ago, Don DiJulia retired after 35 years as the athletic director at St. Joe’s.  He was replaced by Jill Bodensteiner, who is typical of the new wave of athletic directors. Bodensteiner is a lawyer who worked as an administrator at Notre Dame. More and more nowadays, AD’s are business people more than they are jocks.
         
Bodensteiner was chosen by Mark Reed, the first lay president at St. Joe’s, who had been hired in 2015. Clearly, the school is changing.
         
If DiJulia were still AD, he probably would have given Martelli another year—which would have been his 25th—to coach what should be a good team next season with four starters back and a solid recruiting class—including Jameer Nelson Jr.—on the way.
         
But that’s not the way the world works nowadays. It’s all about what have you done for me NOW and, more important, what are you GOING to do for me.
         
I tweeted yesterday about how sad it was for Martelli to go out this way and wrote a Washington Post column about how much the Big Five would miss Martelli and Dunphy. They were, in many ways, the keepers of the flame—along with Jay Wright—that has made the Big Five unique.
         
I wonder, with all these new AD’s and presidents, if they won’t someday say, ‘Hey, we can get more time on ESPN if we don’t have to play four Big Five games a year so…’”
         
This almost happened in the 80s, when Rollie Massimino, after winning the national title at Villanova, didn’t think the school needed the Big Five anymore and Liacouras didn’t want to play in the Palestra anymore.
         
The Big Five took a huge hit. For a number of years, each school only played two Big Five games a year, and, instead of playing all games in the Palestra, the games were played on campus.
         
Martelli, Dunphy and Wright brought the Big Five back. Now, everyone plays everyone again, and, even though most games are played on campus, Martelli was always willing to play his Big Five home games in the Palestra. If allowed by the school, Dunphy probably would have done the same thing, but he at least played La Salle there on three occasions in recent years.
         
Wright will never say it publicly because his fans would have a fit, but he’d love to play in the Palestra again. Villanova fans think the Palestra is beneath them. Which is ludicrous. The Palestra is beneath NO ONE.
         
After my tweet and column, many St. Joseph’s and Temple fans weighed in to tell me Martelli and Dunphy had to go. It was time to move on. The fact that they have done so much for their schools and the community was irrelevant. One guy wrote that the two men “stink” as coaches. They won 1,024 games combined, but that’s not good enough. They’re supposed to be as good as Villanova.
         
They’re not and I’m betting they won’t be anytime soon. Aaron McKie, a great player at Temple, and Dunphy’s top assistant, will replace him. Temple returns most of its key players and McKie—who has never been a head coach—should have a good team next season.
         
So should whomever replaces Martelli—some people think Bodensteiner will look at Delaware Coach Martin Ingelsby, who she knows from her Notre Dame days. Regardless, the Hawks should also be good next season.
         
Long term, who knows? Dunphy and Martelli were going to retire sooner or later. I just wish, in both cases, it had been a little later.
         
And yes, I’m biased. And proud of it.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,” which is set at the Masters and tells the story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters who is being prodded by agents, equipment reps and his father to turn pro and become a human ATM machine. His most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in the National Football League,” has been a New York Times bestseller for two months. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com