Although his official job title at St. Joseph’s University is Men’s Basketball Head Coach, for all intents and purposes, Phil Martelli is not much different from the 308 academic faculty members employed by the university. Through 23 years at the helm of the Hawks, Martelli has led St. Joe’s to plenty of basketball success, but more importantly, in his eyes, are the life lessons he’s imparted on his players. Despite a school record 430 wins, four Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year designations, and a national coach of the year award, it’s the personal relationships Martelli has developed that mean the most to him.
Martelli, 63, said the special relationships he cultivates with his students are the accomplishments he’s most proud of from his two-plus decades at the helm of the Hawks.
“I’m proudest of the number of players that call to share their life stories with me after St. Joseph’s,” he said, noting that he stays in touch with a significant number of St. Joe’s alumni. “I have been impacted by every player. Every single player has had an impact on me, and for that, I can never re-pay them.”
Personal relationships are the reason Martelli pursued a career in basketball in the first place. As a youngster growing up in southwest Philadelphia and later in Lansdowne, Pa., the other neighborhood kids his age were into basketball, so Martelli picked up the game as well. During his early days playing in local Catholic Youth Organization basketball leagues, Martelli encountered a number of influential coaches who would shape his future.
“I met three coaches in CYO who made me crazy about the game,” Martelli recalled. “John Steele, Tom Gallagher, and Pete O’Keefe—they made me love this game and appreciate the game and want to follow in their footsteps.”
Martelli was around 12 years old when he started playing basketball, but it didn’t take long for him to establish himself as a talented and intelligent player. While other kids his age fantasized about playing in the NBA, Martelli just dreamed of becoming a coach.
“Even when I was a young kid, I knew I wanted to coach because of the way they treated all of us,” he said. “It was just very special.”
After a successful college career as a point guard at Widener University, where he set school records for single-season and career assists, Martelli started his coaching career when he landed an assistant coaching job at Cardinal O’Hara High School under former Hawk Bud Gardler. He parlayed that into an assistant coaching position at Widener, where he stayed for one season, and then landed his first head coaching gig at Bishop Kenrick High School.
While he was thrilled to be coaching basketball full-time, Martelli’s ultimate goal was to become an NCAA Division I coach.
“I was hoping to be a Division I head coach, but where that would be, I didn’t know,” he said.
After seven years at Bishop Kenrick, Martelli got his big break. St. Joe’s Head Coach Jim Boyle, who knew Martelli from his time at Widener, offered him a job as a restricted-earnings coach with the Hawks. Martelli turned out to be a great fit, and after 10 years as an assistant coach at St. Joseph’s, he was promoted to head coach in 1995.
“It was overwhelming when I first took over, because you don’t know what you don’t know,” Martelli said. “I just knew that what I wanted to do was to leave the program better than when I came in. I wanted to be able to give it my all and to see if I could have a positive impact on the school, the community, and on the players that we were able to attract.”
He never could have imagined the success he’d encounter in the role. Twenty-three years and 430 wins later, Martelli is still going strong. He signed a multi-year extension in 2015 to ensure Philadelphia remains his home.
The only thing more special than coaching in his home city and working with the countless young players he’s encountered over the years would be to bring an NCAA National Championship to St. Joe’s. Such a task would take the perfect combination of coaching and on-court talent, but Martelli stresses that there’s more to a successful team than coaching strategy and athletic ability. When he recruits students to play for the Hawks, Martelli looks for more than just basketball talent.
“It’s a cliché to say you want better people than you want players, but that’s exactly the way I feel,” he said. “We want the right combination of player and people—more people than player. Personality and character is enormous.”
Martelli believes the Hawks have an excellent mix of talent and character on their 2018-19 team, and even though the experts might not peg St. Joe’s as a contender for the National Championship, Martelli believes they have a chance to win it all—a feat the school has never accomplished, with their most recent deep run coming under Martelli’s direction in 2004, when the Hawks reached the “Elite 8” stage of the NCAA March Madness tournament.
“Why not?” he asked. “If you don’t dream big, then you’re playing it safe. We dream big, and I dream big. The goal here is to make dreams a reality, and obviously we all have a dream of playing late, late into March. That’s why I come to the office every day. It’s why I wake up.”
Regardless of whether or not St. Joseph’s is able to capture that elusive title under Martelli’s regime, Martelli will forever be known as one of the best and most beloved coaches in Philadelphia history.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to chase my dream of being a Division I head coach in the city where I grew up,” Martelli said. “I love what I do and I’m driven to help others.”
When Martelli isn’t busy coaching, recruiting, or doing charity work, he cherishes the free time he has with his family.
“I love my family,” he said. “In the offseason, it’s kind of simple to me. Is there something I can do with my family? Because I spend a lot of time with other people’s families and other people’s kids.”
Martelli and his wife Judy have three adult children, and they’ve all followed in Martelli’s footsteps to some degree.
Daughter Elizabeth and son Phil Jr. are both St. Joseph’s graduates, with Phil Jr. playing college ball for the Hawks before embarking on his own coaching career. He was recently named an assistant coach at Bryant University. Son Jimmy played at the University of Scranton and spent eight years as an assistant coach at various universities before landing in his current gig as director of basketball operations for Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It’s very humbling,” Martelli said of his kids’ basketball careers. “It’s also very angst-driven, because you know how hard this profession is. You want them to realize that there are challenges, but if they stay true to themselves, they’re going to be very successful.”
Always a man of the people, one of the aspects of his job that Martelli enjoys most is the ability to use his notoriety to give back to the community.
“Whether it’s ‘Coaches vs. Cancer’ or any of the other charity endeavors, I want people to in Philadelphia to feel like they know me, and not just the coach,” he said.
Over the years, Martelli has done what he can to make that a reality, and he’s well-known for his charity work in addition to his coaching. As a result, he receives countless donation requests each year.
“I try to fulfill as many requests as I can,” Martelli said. “And I don’t say this in a self-deprecating way, but I don’t think signing anything really does anything. I’d rather contribute something unique like a lunch or a clinic.”
One organization that was a recent beneficiary of Martelli’s generosity was Sheltered Yoga, a local nonprofit that facilitates mental health and wellness to under-served and at-risk communities through yoga. When Sheltered Yoga was collecting auction prizes for their annual golf outing, they reached out to St. Joseph’s in hopes of getting some tickets or courtside access to an upcoming game. What they got was beyond their expectations. Martelli personally called the organization and offered to donate a basketball clinic session as an auction item. The winner of the auction ended up donating the clinic back to Sheltered Yoga, who selected 10 kids from a Philadelphia housing non-profit called Project H.O.M.E., a well-known organization that provides housing for women and children transitioning from homelessness.
On July 17, the small and energetic group of kids from Project H.O.M.E. headed to Michael Hagan Arena at St. Joe’s for this once-in-a-lifetime basketball experience. Martelli and two of his players ran practice drills with the kids and taught them the fundamentals of basketball. Martelli was sure to stress the importance of schoolwork and furthering their education, and the kids left the clinic wanting to pursue college educations and aspiring to one day play for a “world-famous coach” like Martelli.
“We have a couple of those a month,” Martelli said of the clinic. “It’s a different kind of auction item and a nice way to give back.”
In addition to the St. Joseph’s University Hawks, Philadelphia sports fans have plenty of other Division I basketball teams to follow: La Salle, Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, and Villanova comprise the “Philadelphia Big 5” with St. Joe’s, while Drexel University also fields a D-I team in the city. Martelli appreciates the fact that Philadelphia is home to so many prestigious basketball programs.
“I like the fact that there’s six different schools in Philadelphia,” Martelli said. “I really do appreciate that.”
For as good as the Hawks have been at times during Martelli’s career, the recent spotlight has gone to Villanova, winners of the 2016 and 2018 National Championship.
“I would be less than honest if I didn’t say I was envious, but I think it’s a good envy,” Martelli said. “I really do. It’s a good envy because I want that. I want that for my players and my school and my program.”
While St. Joseph’s and Villanova are considered rivals, Martelli has enjoyed watching Villanova’s recent runs.
“I’m delighted for my friend Jay Wright, and I’m delighted for the many, many, many Villanova faithful who are so proud of their school and so proud of their program,” he said.