'Not here to be a mascot': Phil Martelli driven to help Juwan Howard, Michigan win big

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Phil Martelli

Ann Arbor — Phil Martelli had no shortage of options after his long run at Saint Joseph’s came to an end.

He looked into making the transition into television. He talked with his wife about possibly getting a job in the NBA. He even considered going overseas and coaching in Switzerland.

“But I knew that a situation in a Power 5 where everybody that's involved in Michigan basketball gets up every day with the intent of winning a national championship, I knew that was for me,” Martelli said Thursday during the team’s media day at Crisler Center.

And while it has been over two decades since his title didn’t include “head coach,” Martelli hasn’t had any regrets or reservations about taking a step back and becoming the No. 2 guy on Juwan Howard’s staff.

“There are no moments where I'll say, 'Ah, man. I really miss this,’” said Martelli, who went 444-328 in 24 seasons at Saint Joseph's.

“I don't know how many games I’ve coached, but I’ve never sat down. And when we secretly scrimmage this week, I'm going to sit down. I'm being dead honest, I don't know what that's like. But I'm not going to overstep my bounds. I'm not here about me.”

That’s because what drew Martelli to Ann Arbor was Howard and his passion for his alma mater.

“I can't wait to get up in the morning because I know he's putting everything — his heart, his soul, his blood, sweat and tears into this,” Martelli said, “so I have to do the same to be honorable to the offer that he made for me to come here.”

In the four months Martelli has been working with Howard, Martelli said he has been "blown away" by the recruiter and teacher Howard is, noting he likes to "get his hands dirty" and work with Michigan's big men.

"He's a star and they're not paying me to say that," said Martelli, who had his title modified from assistant coach to associate head coach this week. "Michigan is a blue blood. Nobody wants to admit that but look at the record under John Beilein. This is going up a level because of Juwan Howard."

Martelli added one of the "beauties" about Howard is he wants everyone on his staff — including assistants Howard Eisley and Saddi Washington, the lone holdover from Beilein's staff — to speak up and give their input because “it’s not his way is the only way.”

As a result, they have all had a hand in recruiting, player development and developing Howard’s system.

“We have done it as a collective group. Our staff is egoless,” Howard said. “I love to over-communicate. I don’t want to put anyone into a corner and feel like they cannot talk, they don’t have a role or they don’t have a voice. I brought them here for a reason because I trust their basketball knowledge. I would be a fool to not use them.

“We meet as a staff pretty much every day and we talk about basketball. We talk about how we can help this team get better. I’m listening, I’m all ears."

And before Martelli took the job while he was weighing his options, that’s all he wanted to be assured — that he would be heard.

“I don't hesitate to say, 'Well, what if? If we put in a zone defense, what if we trap the baseline? That's what I would do. That's how I did it,'” Martelli said. “I don't have to be listened to. I don't have all the answers. But it's encouraged to discuss and put it on the table. There's no hesitation, I have no hesitation.

“I'm not here to be a mascot. I'm here to help Juwan Howard coach on a Monday night in April (in the national title game). That's dead what I'm about because he's going to do that. I just want to be a part of making sure that happens.”

Slam dunks

Before the season gets underway, Michigan will hold a “Countdown to Tip-Off” event at 6 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28 at Crisler Center.

The event will feature an open practice, a 3-point contest and a Q&A session with Howard and the Wolverines. There will also be photo opportunities and prizes. Admission is free.

… Howard said the team is fully healthy heading into the season and nobody on the roster is dealing with any lingering ailments.

… Junior forward Isaiah Livers changed his jersey from No. 4 to No. 2, which is his old high school number.

… The basketball team posted a perfect 100 score in Graduation Success Rate, which measures four years of graduation data that’s collected by the NCAA.


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins