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Call with Juwan Howard 'changed the equation' for Phil Martelli

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Phil Martelli

When Phil Martelli’s 34-year run at Saint Joseph’s came to an end in March, he knew he wanted to keep coaching.

He started making calls and looking at different opportunities. One of his friends gave him a piece of advice while he searched for what to do next: Don’t rush and don’t settle but when an opportunity grabs your heart, you’ll know.

Over the next seven weeks, Martelli mulled an array of avenues from coaching overseas to broadcasting to mentoring younger coaches, but none of them tugged at him.

That all changed when Martelli spoke with Michigan coach Juwan Howard on May 20, two days before Howard agreed to a five-year deal with his alma mater.

“I went, 'This is real, this is the deal and if this comes to fruition it's going to be a spectacular next chapter,' ” Martelli said Wednesday on “The Fanatic,” a Philadelphia-based radio show. “I was pursuing several different options all in basketball, but that one call changed the whole equation for me.”

Martelli, 64, admitted he didn’t know much about Howard when they first spoke. So, like anyone, he did his research and was impressed that Howard kept his promise to his grandmother to graduate with his class — even after leaving Michigan a year early to go to the NBA.

Then when an NBA contact compared Howard to one of Martelli’s former star players Jameer Nelson, Martelli said he was sold and added “I just hope we can do this.”

Exactly two weeks after that May 20 phone call, Martelli announced on Twitter he had accepted an assistant-coaching position on Howard’s staff (the Michigan basketball program has yet to make an official announcement).

According to Martelli, there were two things that ultimately sold him on Howard: his humbleness and his love for Michigan.

Howard interviewed for several NBA head-coaching vacancies this spring before the Michigan job opened up. And during last week’s emotional introductory news conference, Howard revealed he was offered the associate head coach position with the Minnesota Timberwolves but turned it down because he couldn’t stop thinking about Michigan.

“He could've stayed in the NBA,” Martelli said of Howard, who spent six seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat. “If you talk to people in that world he was on the track to be a head coach in the NBA. This was the college job that he would take.

“I spoke to him after his press conference last week and I said, 'Juwan, I know it was genuine and it was real, but the fact that you cried at your press conference you grabbed me because you know that I'm an emotional guy and you grabbed every mother of every recruit in this country. We can now go into every living room in this country because you're the real deal. You're not an NBA two-time champion. You're not a guy who played in two Final Fours. You're not a guy who played 19 years in the NBA. You're a real human being.' ”

While it has been over two decades since Martelli has been an assistant coach, he said his teaching style won’t change much and he won’t compromise any of his values.

The one difference will come with recruiting, an area where Martelli said Howard “absolutely wants talent but right on that same plane he wants character” and his focus will be on setting the table for Howard to seal the deal with prospects.

“The head coach is the closer and I have real belief this guy is going to become one of the best closers in the country,” Martelli said.

Even though Martelli might have mixed feelings about how his tenure ended at Saint Joseph's — he was fired after spending 24 seasons as head coach and 10 as an assistant — he’s ready to turn the page and write a new chapter with a better ending.

“My goal at this point in time is to see (Howard) standing on the sideline coaching in the national championship game,” Martelli said, “and everything that I do will be dedicated to making that happen."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins