OXFORD, Ohio – Chuck Martin relaxes in his sparsely-decorated office in Miami’s 56,000 square-foot Athletic Performance Center as his players work out in the 8,200 square-foot weight room.
Attached are the 6,000 square-foot locker room, its adjoining 1,400 square-foot players lounge, and the 5,000 square-foot athletic training and rehab facility, all of which are next to the indoor practice field.
All but the practice field opened just four months earlier, as if on cue to one of the most incredible comeback seasons in college football history.
“Life is good at Miami now,” said Martin, 49, about to enter his fourth season as head coach of the Redhawks.
After battling for survival his first two-and-a-half years on the job following a four-year stint at Notre Dame, Martin and the Redhawks went from losing 25 of their first 30 games to winning six in a row, competing for a spot in the Mid-American Conference championship game, and qualifying for a bowl game.
Since the inception of the 12-game schedule, no FBS team had lost its first six and won its last six until Miami (Ohio) did it last season.
“I told everybody in January that we’d be a good MAC team that would be in 75 percent of our MAC games,” Martin said. “We ended up being in 100 percent of our MAC games and winning 75 percent of them.”
THE JOURNEY TO SUCCESS
The journey to the first real success at Miami (Ohio) in six seasons began in mid-December of 2013 when Martin bypassed Notre Dame’s Pinstripe Bowl trip to New York to accept the job with the Redhawks, which had lost all 12 games in ’13.
Martin had arrived in rural Oxford, Ohio – about 40 miles north northwest of Cincinnati -- following a four-year stint coaching defense and then offense at Notre Dame, which came on the heels of a six-year run at Division II Grand Valley State where he coached in three national title games, won two national titles in back-to-back seasons, and finished with 74-7 record.
Miami (Ohio) football is known as the “Cradle of Coaches.” The list of football coaching dignitaries is as long and prestigious as any football program in the country. Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, and Bo Schembechler led Miami football to success before venturing off to achieve national renown at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan respectively.
Miami assistants such as Earl “Red” Blaik (Army), Jim Young (Purdue), Carm Cozza (Yale), Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints) and Jim Tressel (Ohio State) achieved their own levels of success on grander stages as well.
But when Martin arrived following the 2013 season, the Cradle of Coaches was distant memory. After former LSU, Texas and Notre Dame assistant Mike Haywood won 10 games in his second season in Oxford, the Redhawks fell on hard times, losing 28 games in three seasons from 2011-13.
Miami hit rock bottom in 2013, losing all 12 games by a combined 311 points, or 26 points per game. The Redhawks scored 13 touchdowns the year before Martin’s arrival. The leading returning scorer for Miami crossed the goal line twice.
“I always tell people: ‘We didn’t jump on the Titanic; we jumped on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,’” Martin said. “Somebody said, ‘You’ve got to turn this ship around,’ and I said, ‘The ship is already on the bottom of the ocean.’”
Martin’s first order of business was to find a quarterback for the future and the present. He addressed the future first when he was hired one day before the December recruiting moratorium.
“I was hired on a Thursday and went on the road on Friday,” Martin said. “The dead period started Saturday. I told my AD, Dave Saylor, ‘I’m going to Cincinnati to find some players.” He said, “But you only have one day,” and I said, ‘Whenever in my life I didn’t know what the next move was, I’d go recruit.’”
There was only one quarterback prospect in Cincinnati less than two months from signing day that wasn’t spoken for in the recruiting process – an undersized, inaccurate-throwing, read-option quarterback by the name of Gus Ragland.
“Even his dad thought he would be playing a position other than quarterback in college,” Martin said. “He couldn’t really throw, but he scored something like eight touchdowns in the state title game. I wanted him to be our quarterback.”
As it pertained to the upcoming 2014 season, Martin gladly welcomed Notre Dame fifth-year transfer Andrew Hendrix to run his first Redhawk offense.
“We lost to Northern Illinois 51-41 and Andrew Hendrix put up 41 points,” Martin said. “He really became a football player here. If Andrew isn’t pre-med at Notre Dame, I think he ends up playing a lot of football there.”
It was a long first year for Martin in Oxford. The Redhawks won two games – Massachusetts by a point and Kent State by seven points. The average margin of defeat, however, was reduced from 25.9 the year before Martin’s arrival to 12.1.
“Physically, we couldn’t compete at any position,” said Martin of the 2014 season. “My worst Grand Valley team would have beaten my first Miami team by 28 points. That Grand Valley team would have physically dominated my first Miami team.”
He converted a quarterback, Austin Gearing, into an all-MAC defensive end. He played his freshmen extensively – a class he had put together in six weeks – and took his lumps. He balanced playing younger guys with letting the upperclassmen build upon previous playing experience, albeit a losing experience.
The Redhawks had improved, even won a couple of games, and now expectations for further success were on the rise.
“Year Two was hard because there was false enthusiasm created by Year One,” Martin said. “I told the alums, ‘We’re not going to be good. I know what’s in my locker room. I know what it takes to compete. We’re going to try like crazy. We’re going to get better. But we don’t have the guys to win a championship.’
“We didn’t have Hendrix, who threw for 3,300 yards and 23 touchdowns. We still had most of the team I inherited, but they didn’t like football. It wasn’t a part of their everyday life.”
Miami was much more competitive in ‘15, although an eight-game losing streak covered it up. It took victories over Eastern Michigan and Massachusetts in the final three weeks to lift the Redhawks to the three-victory mark in Year Two of the Martin regime.
By the start of the 2016 season, only 15 juniors and seniors were on the Miami roster. The rest were freshmen and sophomores recruited by Martin and his staff, which included former Notre Dame grad assistants Bill Brechen, Corey Brown and Pat Welsh. The freshmen and sophomores were invested. They had bought into Martin’s coaching style and system, even if the majority of the upperclassmen did not.
“We go to Wisconsin in ’15, lose 58-0, get negative three yards rushing, don’t get a first down until the fourth quarter, and the older kids just want to get on the bus and get to Uptown,” Martin said.
A three-horse race for the quarterback position in ’16 became a solo run when Ragland tore an ACL in the spring and sophomore Jordan Martin blew out a knee in the pre-season. Sophomore Billy Bahl would start the season at quarterback.
Instead of losing 58-0 at Wisconsin, as they had done in September of 2015, the Redhawks traveled to Iowa and lost by 24, but out-gained the Hawkeyes by 20 yards.
A sloppy four-point loss to FCS Eastern Illinois – after leading by 10 in the second half – temporarily derailed the strides made in the trip to Iowa.
Over the next three weeks, the Redhawks lost by seven to Western Kentucky, seven at Cincinnati and 10 to eventual East Division winner Ohio University to fall to 0-5.
When freshman quarterback Noah Wezensky completed 13-of-35 and was picked off twice at Akron, the Redhawks had fallen to 0-6 and suddenly found themselves back to square one – or so it appeared.
“Physically, we weren’t getting dominated like we had been the first two years,” Martin said. “It was bad around here, not in the locker room, but on the outside. Now you’ve got to get the players to shut off their phones because parents, uncles, and high school coaches are telling them we stink.
“I’m not saying we were close to being a great football team, but we were close to a good MAC team. The first year, we were losing by 40. There’s no learning how to win when you’re losing by 40. But when you’re losing close games and out-gaining people, you know you’re close.”
But there were the inevitable questions.
“First question at the press conference a couple of days after losing at Akron: Are you worried about your job?” Martin recalled.
“Great question. Fair question. We’re in Year Three and we’re 0-6. I said, ‘We’re going to be a good MAC team this year. The record isn’t better, but if you’re following us, you know we’re better.’”
Ragland returned from a torn ACL – about a six-month rehab – to start Game Seven against Kent State. The Redhawks pulled out a four-point victory for their first of the season. Trips to Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan also resulted in wins. A toss-up game with Central Michigan turned into a 20-point victory after falling behind early. A trap game at Buffalo became an 11-point Miami win.
Suddenly, the Redhawks were 5-2 in conference play with a chance to win the East Division with a victory over a struggling Ball State and an Ohio loss to Akron.
Trailing by 10 at halftime, the Redhawks pulled out a 21-20 victory while Ohio squeaked by the Zips, 9-3, to finish in a tie for first in the East Division with Ohio holding the tiebreaker and playing Western Michigan in the MAC championship.
But Miami had done the unthinkable – six wins following six losses to open the season.
“When our six-game winning streak started, our senior class was 5-37,” Martin said. “We won more games in six weeks than the senior class had won in their previous three-and-a-half years here. We had eight seniors left, seven juniors and 70 freshmen and sophomores.
“I told my team,’ I’ve won a national championship as a pre-season No. 1 (at Grand Valley State). You guys have accomplished more than they ever did. This is a miracle. You’re 5-37 and you’re still fighting? You’re going to do well in life. No one has ever gone from 5-37 to 6-0.’”
The Redhawks out-gained Mississippi State in the St. Peterburg Bowl, 433-to-335. But a minus-two turnover ratio, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point gave the Bulldogs a 17-16 victory.
“Our kids played their asses off and 34 of the 42 that played were freshmen and sophomores,” Martin said. “I took my JV team to play an SEC team and we should have won.”
YEAR FOUR; RETURNING TO NOTRE DAME
When Martin arrived in Oxford, not one Miami player had made the all-MAC team the previous year, a selection that runs four teams deep. Prior to the 2016 season, the Redhawks were predicted to finish last in the East Division, but ended up in a tie for first.
“This pre-season, we have the most projected all-MAC players,” Martin said. “A year ago, we were predicted for last and now we’re predicted for first.”
When asked if his fourth Miami team will be his best, Martin says, “Oh, by far. We should be fighting for a conference championship from now on. That’s a realistic goal.”
Shortly after Martin arrived at Miami, he received a phone call from Notre Dame, inquiring about setting up a game with the Irish in 2015. Martin was reluctant to pull the trigger. He didn’t want to return to Notre Dame Stadium with a team that couldn’t acquit itself.
Miami agreed to a game with the Irish in 2017 on Sept 30. Martin won’t go so far as to make a bold prediction that his Redhawks are going to shock the world by defeating the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium. But he’s confident his team will be up for the challenge.
“I don’t know that (Notre Dame fans) are in for a surprise as far as the result,” Martin said. “What Notre Dame has recruited…It’s like when we played Mississippi State. We never recruited any of their kids. It’s like going to recess and they have the first 85 picks.
“But I’m hopeful (Notre Dame fans) are surprised at how well we show up and how we do things. I’m not even worried about the score. I’m hopeful 85,000 fans say, ‘Wow, Miami has some players.’”
A total of 17 starters return for the Redhawks – nine on offense and eight on defense.
Ragland played the last seven games of the ’16 season, throwing 17 touchdown passes with just one interception. Martin believes wide receiver James Gardner has a chance to play in the NFL. He loves his trio of junior running backs. Four of five starters return on the offensive line.
His junior linebackers started as sophomores. He has a first-team all-MAC player at cornerback. He lost his starting defensive ends that combined for 10½ sacks last year, but is solid at tackle.
Martin admits that standing on the visitor’s sideline and pulling against his beloved Notre Dame will be firsts.
“I’ve never cheered against Notre Dame a day in my life,” said Martin, who grew up in the Chicago area as a diehard Irish fan. “Now I’m going to be standing on the visitor’s sideline? That’s hard for me. Not one time since I knew what sports was have I been anything but pissed when Notre Dame football or basketball lost. The Cradle of Coaches is cool, but we’re talking Notre Dame.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to try to win. It probably will feel like just another team at kickoff, but it’s going to be weird. That will be the first day in my life that I’ve wanted Notre Dame to lose. I root for Brian Kelly, Harry Hiestand and those guys every day.”
So how would Martin react if Miami (Ohio) defeats Notre Dame on Sept. 30?
“If we pull off a miracle and beat Notre Dame, it would be the first time in my life that part of me would be conflicted,” Martin said. “I’ve never had a win where I felt bad, but in 49 years, I’ve never rooted against Notre Dame.
“There would be a part of Chuck Martin that would think, ‘That’s a terrible loss for the place I love more than any place in the world.’ I’m not saying the other emotion wouldn’t be there with a miracle upset. But my players’ heads probably would explode.”
Martin is reminded of another coach – Ara Parseghian – whose Northwestern teams defeated Notre Dame four years in a row from 1959-62. It was largely Parseghian’s success against the Irish that landed him the Notre Dame job in 1964.
“Do you know how Ara Parseghian landed the Notre Dame job?” Martin is asked.
“Yeah, he was at Northwestern and beat them,” Martin said.
“I wish I was at Northwestern,” Martin added with a laugh. “If I was at Northwestern, I’d probably have a better chance.”