According to Phil Martelli, in his 24 years as head coach at St. Joseph’s, he never once sat down during a game. There wasn’t even a chair on the sideline for him.
Monday, it was announced that Martelli would serve as the Michigan men’s basketball team’s acting head coach for the remainder of the Wolverines’ regular season with Michigan coach Juwan Howard suspended for his role in Sunday’s postgame altercation.
After three years of taking an unfamiliar seat on the bench as the Wolverines’ associate head coach, for Michigan’s next five games, Martelli will be standing once again.
Only this time, there will be an empty seat.
“There’ll be a chair there, but it will be for (Howard),” Martelli said Tuesday. “It will not be for me. And I told the players that yesterday, that I’m not replacing Juwan Howard.”
Addressing the media for the first time since the announcement, Martelli made it abundantly clear that he’s not Howard, and he won’t try to be. He has 24 years of college coaching experience to build off of. While nothing could fully prepare him for the role he’s been abruptly thrust into, there are very few assistants in the country — if any — who are better equipped to succeed in his position.
“But come on, I know this,” Martelli said. “I know this wholeheartedly, without poking my chest out. I can run a practice. And I can manage a game. Right?
“They didn’t ask me to be Juwan Howard. They asked me to be me. And you know what? I’m confident in that.”
While Martelli won’t attempt to replicate Howard, he insists that nothing about how the team operates on the floor will change. The groundwork Howard has laid is still there. And in order to keep a sense of stability, Martelli says it will take a full team effort. That starts with him, but it also means other coaches and leaders stepping up.
Martelli said himself that he doesn’t have the offensive mind that Howard does, so assistant coach Howard Eisley, who designed the Wolverines’ playbook with Howard, will call sets and draw up plays in timeouts. Director of basketball operations Chris Hunter — Michigan’s temporary third assistant coach — worked with the big men at Monday’s practice. In Martelli’s eyes, Eisley, Hunter, assistant coach Saddi Washington and team captain fifth-year guard Eli Brooks are all equally important in staying on course.
“Forward together,” Martelli said. “That’s what this has to be. Forward together. And I’m a part of it. I’m no more or less a part of it than Howard Eisley or Saddi Washington or Eli. We’re doing this together, moving forward.”
Of course, there’s a large cloud looming over the Wolverines’ current situation. Michigan is currently squarely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, its final five games likely to play a key role in determining whether or not it gets in. Now, the Wolverines have to navigate that stretch without their head coach, and Wednesday’s game without freshman forward Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II — both of whom were suspended one game for their role in Sunday’s incident.
Martelli, though, says he doesn’t feel any added pressure.
“It doesn’t weigh on me,” Martelli said. “Look, the players have to be aware of it. But the only thing that we can control is this idea of improvement. We have to play better. We have to play better against Rutgers than we did at the RAC. We have to play better against Rutgers than we did at Wisconsin.”
Despite what happened on Sunday, the Wolverines’ outlook remains the same. Losing Howard is an obstacle, but their opportunity to make it to March is still there.
And for Michigan’s most crucial stretch of the season, Martelli will be standing on the sidelines, confident in his ability to lead his team:
“Everybody learned a hard lesson. And you know what? Time to play basketball.”