The first call Geno Auriemma got after he won his first national championship in 1995 wasn't from President Clinton, Governor John Rowland or Jim Calhoun. It was from St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. "He was one of the first guys on the court in Philly, too, when we won in 2000," Auriemma said Monday night after the UConn women were awarded the No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in the Lincoln Regional. Auriemma also knows he's not getting a quick return call from one of his closest and dearest friends this time. "He's on my voicemail today, and I'm not going to return the call until Friday," said Martelli, whose Hawks will face the UConn men in the NCAA Tournament Thursday night in Buffalo. "I just don't want to put him in a situation where he'd be uncomfortable or might say something — not that he would ever say anything that he might regret later." Three hours later, that drew a big laugh from a man who has made a career of saying something he might regret later. "If I wanted to be the jerk I was like, oh, two years ago, I'd keep calling him until he answered the phone," Auriemma said. "For the record, my phone call was strictly to congratulate him because I know how much it meant to him. This was real personal, this one." Auriemma said he had no intention of coughing up any inside information to the guy who hired him as his Bishop Kenrick High assistant in 1979. Besides, Auriemma said, in this day and age, what information isn't already available? "Actually, I was going to tell him, 'You'd better guard Shabazz. And that tall German kid [Niels Giffey]? He can really shoot it. You better get a hand up on him.' My real advice to him was to stay under the radar this year. That's what I was going to tell him if he called me back. 'Stay under the radar, dude. Last time [when St. Joe's had an undefeated regular season record in 2004], you were auditioning to take Johnny Carson's spot.'" It was at that point, Auriemma reached for his iPhone and produced a photo. It was of a young Geno reading a children's book to Jim Foster's kids, Martelli's kids and his two daughters. Alysa was a baby. "That's at our vacation spot in New Jersey, it was a triple-decker, we all had one floor and a main floor where you could hang out," Auriemma said. The three families would get together for years. Auriemma had been assistant women's coach at St. Joe's under Foster, who would go on to coach at Vanderbilt, Ohio State and now Chattanooga. He met Martelli at a camp run by legendary Immaculata coach Cathy Rush. Martelli had just landed the Kenrick job. It was Auriemma's alma mater and it was 1979. The two bonded. Looking to coach the boys because of the uncertainty of the women's game, Auriemma accepted Martelli's offer to be his assistant. "I lost track of him after he was the JV coach with me in high school," Martelli said. "What has he been doing?" They've been busting on each other since Martelli bought a house only a block from where Auriemma grew up in Norristown. The young married couples hung out all the time. The guys talked basketball into the wee hours. More than once, Auriemma remembers waking up in the foyer of Martelli's house. The bonds of friendship run 35 years. That why Auriemma kept saying how thrilled he was that Martelli won the Atlantic 10 championship over VCU Sunday in Brooklyn to earn his first NCAA bid since 2009. "I've never seen him so emotional," Auriemma said. "He has had a really difficult time the past year both personally, with his family, and it has been difficult at St. Joe's the last couple of years. There has been a lot of tragedy in his life, some really tough stuff. I know how special this is to him and how special this team is to him." Martelli lost his sister, Pattiann Phillips, unexpectedly when her heart simply stopped beating. She was 53. He discovered his sister-in-law, who has since died of pancreatic cancer, needed to enter a hospice. She was 52. His mom fell and broke her hip. And his son Jimmy, part of the Mike Rice scandal for abusive practice behavior, resigned as Rutgers assistant. All this happened within weeks in the spring of 2013. St. Joe's also had been picked to win the A-10 in 2012-2013 and finished eighth. There were unhappy alumni. A petition started for his removal. It could have broken Martelli. It did not. That's why he loves this team that stuck with him. "My grandkids also have lived with us while my son [Phil Jr.] is an assistant at Delaware," Martelli said. "Those two little kids without knowing what they were doing, just their enjoyment of life, helped my wife and I get to the other side." Basketball runs deep in the Martelli family. Phil's wife, Judy, played at on the national championship team at Immaculata. Phil Jr.'s wife, the former Meghan Phelps from Bristol, played on the Eastern Connecticut team that made the Division III national finals in 2003. The name Philip runs deep in the Martelli family, too. It is the son of Phil Jr. and Meghan, one of those boys in the old photo Auriemma showed us, who has gone viral. The television cameras caught him Sunday at the A-10 tournament a few rows behind his grandfather, dressed like Phil, mimicking his every move. Folded arms. Hands on chin. Drew stuff up on the whiteboard. He even had a man's-sized tie that came down to his knees. It's great stuff. "It was unbelievable," Auriemma said. Martelli said he had been somewhat unaware of it, because his grandson usually sits in the upper level above the bench at home games and this was the first time he saw the entire routine. He does know Philip is enamored with news conferences. "He knows to sit and wait and at the end he'll deliver a message." Messages like, "The Hawk will never die." Martelli is a slave to ritual. He lays out his clothes a certain way. Get dressed at a certain time. Says prayers in a certain order before he leaves for a game. He doesn't carry money on game day. He admits he sounds like Rain Man. Anyway, on game days, Philip will just sit there in his room, not saying anything. "He just stares at me," Martelli said. Now he's mimicking all of it. "Last week he was laying out his clothes to go to Brooklyn," Martelli said.
Phil Martelli Is A UConn Foe And A UConn Best Friend
Hartford Courant | Mar 19