If you were to compare the 2007-2008 college basketball season to an amusement park, there’d be few rides as wild as Chuck Martin’s roller coaster of a year. Martin, a Bronx native, started the season as an assistant coach at the University of Memphis, a job he’d held since 2006. He helped guide the team to an NCAA-record 38 wins and an appearance in the national championship last March. Up nine points over the Kansas Jayhawks with just over two minutes remaining, however, the Tigers collapsed, and eventually lost the title game in a shocking overtime defeat. Then, less than two weeks later — in yet another sudden turn of events — Martin fulfilled his longtime dream of becoming a head coach by landing the top job at Marist. Tough December matchups against Iona (Dec. 5 in Poughkeepsie), Siena (Dec. 9 in Albany), and yes, his former employer (Dec. 2 in Memphis) will reveal whether Martin’s topsy-turvy 2008 ends on a high or low note. Here, he takes a moment to share some tales from his very own basketball diaries.
Your first name is José. How’d you get the nickname Chuck?
A common nickname in Puerto Rico for people who are named José is “Che.” I was raised in the Bronx — I came over at a very young age, I was only a few months old — and my neighbors in the Bronx just couldn’t get “Che.” So somehow it turned into Chuck, and it just kind of stuck.
Do you still have family in Puerto Rico?
Yes. My mom’s in the Bronx, but my aunts, uncles, cousins are all there. Too cold here in the States — they like the Caribbean, they like the beaches.
Did you start playing basketball as a kid?
Yeah; you know, basketball’s a city game. What I mean by that is it’s free. It’s the playground. If it’s raining, you can play; if it’s snowing, you can play. You can play by yourself, try to mimic Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Jordan. You just need a ball and a basket.
Why did you decide to come to Marist?
I thought it was a great opportunity to raise a family in this area, and to become head coach at an institution that is so strong academically. And I wanted to be part of a program that has been very good for a long time, but just has not been able to get over the hump. That’s really exciting to me. Can you climb Mount Everest? Can you get them to the finals of the MAAC [Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference]? They haven’t done that since they joined the MAAC. Those challenges drew me to the job — “Man, I wonder if I can be the guy to get them over the hump.”
Dr. Murray, our president, has been really impressive from day one — his demeanor, how he goes about his daily routine. And I believe in Tim Murray, our athletic director. He’s obviously made some good decisions, hiring [women’s head basketball coach] Brian Giorgis, a high school coach, when many people wouldn’t do it at this level. Tim knew exactly what he wanted, and he was right. Brian’s been extremely successful.
So how do you like life in the Hudson Valley so far?
It’s been really good. The people up here have embraced me and my wife and kids. We’re excited to be a part of the community.
Have you found any favorite spots, restaurants, anything like that yet?
The place across the street [from the Marist campus], Cosimo’s, is really good. I highly recommend it, great spot. Shadows [on the Hudson] has been really nice, I’ve been there a few times. And the Eveready Diner has been good.
How will being a New York native help you in terms of recruiting high school players?
Recruiting is so much about contacts and relationships. You know, 20 years ago, growing up in the Bronx, I didn’t realize I was going to be a college coach. But those roots in the Bronx will allow me to go back and have the people in that community embrace me and welcome me. And that’s half the battle of recruiting. Can you get into the community? Can you get into the fabric of the people there, what’s going on? I’ve always treated people well, and they’ve always reciprocated and done right by me.
Going back to Memphis on December 2nd, facing a lot of the players you’ve coached — what’s going to be running through your mind?
Oh, man. Just great, great respect for the city of Memphis, and great respect for Coach Cal [John Calipari] and the University of Memphis. That program was really good to my family. You’re kind of torn — you recruited some of those kids, and you want to see them do well. At the same time, you’re somewhere else, and you want to make sure your kids here do well. It’s hard, but it will be a really good experience for me, and a good experience for our team.
So has your wardrobe switched over from Tiger blue to Fox red yet?
The suits are still Tiger blue, but I’ve got the red ties. I’m getting there. Gradually, I’m weeding out the blue, and bringing in the red.