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Why Chuck Martin took a pay cut to coach one of college football's worst programs

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Chuck Martin talks to the media during a press conference. (USAT)

DETROIT – Chuck Martin knew how many people thought he was crazy because they kept telling him to his face. This included his closest friends.

He was one of college football's hottest coaching prospects last December when he decided to leave the prestige and security of being offensive coordinator at Notre Dame to take over the worst team in the sport. And for the effort, he'd enjoy a $200,000 pay cut.

Yet exactly what awaited him at Miami of Ohio didn't fully hit until he pored over the details of a team on a lengthy bowl drought and a 16-game losing streak, including, naturally, a fruitless 0-12 campaign in 2013.

"The one stat that really got me was when I asked, 'Well, who led us in touchdowns last season?'" Martin recalled Wednesday at Mid-American Conference media day.

"'And they said, 'Dawan Scott.'

"And I said, 'Well, how many did he have?'

"And they said, 'two.'

"I said, 'No, no, no, who led our team in touchdowns?" Martin said as broke into a laugh.

"Really, two?" he continued. "Two? That means every six games you get a touchdown. That's when I thought, 'OK, we've got a long ways to go.' Then they told me we didn't get the ball over midfield against Cincinnati until the fourth quarter or something."

Miami gained just one net yard in the second half of that loss. In fairness, the RedHawks did drive to the Cincinnati 20-yard line in the fourth quarter, only to promptly lose 26 yards and turn the ball over on downs. Naturally, they were shutout.

"I've played a lot of football games and even a bad offense gets over midfield," Martin said.

America has seen a lot of football games and it is not easy to find many teams worse than the 2013 RedHawks.

They ranked 122nd (out of 123) in total offense and 113th in total defense. They lost their 12 games by an average of 25.9 points. They averaged just 9.75 points while playing in the MAC, which isn't exactly stacked with SEC-caliber defenses.

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Chuck Martin talks during a press conference as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator. (USA Today)

Chuck Martin talks during a press conference as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator. (USA Today)

The closest they came to victory was squandering a rare second-half lead to Massachusetts, which itself was so bad it didn't win another game all season.

So here last December was a then-45 year old with a powerhouse resume – an offensive coordinator in South Bend that included a run to the 2012 national title game, plus six years as a head coach at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan where he won two national titles and finished runner-up once.

He was the perfect combination of experience and acumen; a proven tactician and motivator. He could both develop talent and recruit it, both at the elite level of Notre Dame and finding diamonds in the rough in D-II.

He was on the radar of any number of higher paying programs where even if they were struggling he'd take over teams with players who scored more than two touchdowns in an entire season. Basically he wouldn't risk the trajectory of his career on a winless bunch in the MAC.

"When he took the job, six ADs from other schools called and said, 'how'd you get him?'" Miami athletic director David Sayler said.

Yeah, how?

"I'm just a little bit off," Martin noted.

Then he laughed again.

– – – – – – –

Miami of Ohio is known as the "Cradle of Coaches", having given early chances to legends such as Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Ara Parseghian. Others such as Sean Payton and Jim Tressel have served as assistants. It has a rich football history.

It is also one of the nation's elite academic institutions, has a powerful alumni network and is located in the beautiful college town of Oxford. It has a ton going for it.

It's also gone 35-74 since 2005, becoming a place, Martin believes, for too many kids focused on getting a superior education, but not so much on football success. It seems like forever since Ben Roethlisberger slung them into the top 10.

"Our academics are awesome," Martin said. "We're proud of it. [But] you can do both well, like Notre Dame and Stanford. I don't believe you have to choose."

Martin chose Miami because he knows its history and believes in its future. He thinks he has the best job in the entire conference. He can't imagine not being successful.

It doesn't get any better than taking over the worst team in America.

"As a head coach, you want to leave your mark," Martin said. "And what's a bigger mark than winning a conference title here?"

– – – – – – –

Martin grew up in Park Forest, Ill., a south suburb of Chicago. His father was a disciplined postal worker. His mother was so driven she worked as a nurse at a local hospital 25 years and climbed all the way to become its president.

Focus on the task is just a given.

"My dad conducted himself a certain way every day," Martin said. "If you did what he wanted, he was a heck of a guy to be around. If you didn't do it the way he wanted, he wasn't much fun. And you didn't have to wonder what he thought.

"I hated it at times as a kid but all my success comes from that," Martin continued. "I coach like I was raised. There is no magic. It's about building proper habits, never taking a day off and never accepting that something can't be done the right way."

The Martin boys were taught to play games a certain way, the right way. Practice was paramount, even extra practice, with details hammered home. Routinely his father would guard against complacency in life by demanding all his sons go run laps around the block: down Blair, to Jackson, over to Davis, back up Gettysburg. Then do it again. And again.

The less hospitable the weather, the better he thought it was for them.

"You didn't walk halfway either because of fear he might be looking," Martin said. "My friends would be out playing and they'd laugh at me, 'the Martin idiots are running around in circles again.'

"Actually, they still laugh at me about it."

– – – – – – –

Martin may be self-deprecating and willing to lean on gallows humor when discussing the team he inherited. He has no doubt, however, that present circumstances won't last long. Miami may not win right away, but progress is coming. The victories will eventually follow.

"He told us on the first day that we want to be known as a team nobody wants to play," linebacker Kent Kern said.

To do that, Martin says Miami must first improve the players it has and for that he can lean on his experience at Grand Valley – six years as an assistant under Brian Kelly, six as a head coach. The total run featured an astounding six national title game appearances and four championships.

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Miami's Dawan Scott (25) watches from the bench during a 2013 loss. (AP)

Miami's Dawan Scott (25) watches from the bench during a 2013 loss. (AP)

At Division II, you don't just bring in star talent. You're recruiting nobodies and then help develop them, like Dallas Cowboys corner back Brandon Carr, a passed-over prospect from Flint, Mich. turned Grand Valley star, who is now sitting on a $51 million contract.

Next you go recruit better and more competitive players, with Martin selling the school's great academics and even his ability to get players to the NFL. Yes, the NFL.

This may be the MAC, but Martin didn't come here to settle or concede anything to anyone. He's not a sweet-talker. More like a bulldozer.

Consider his first recruiting cycle last winter upon accepting the job. One of Miami's verbal commits, wide receiver Sam Martin of Colorado, momentarily flipped in the final week to Rutgers, saying the lure of playing in the Big Ten was too much to pass up.

"He said, 'Coach, I want to play at the highest level,'" Martin said. "I said, 'The highest level is the NFL. If you think they can get you to the NFL more than me, then go play there.'

"He signed with me."

It's all part of a bold, yet somewhat unexpectedly worded recruiting pitch focused on not sugarcoating the demands academically and athletically that will come.

"Here's what's in it for you if you come to Miami: I'm going to kick your ass every day," Martin said. "If you don't want that, then that's fine. I'm good."

He paused for a second.

"Not many people are selling you a good ass-kicking these days."

– – – – – – –

Martin will make $450,000 this year at Miami, a heck of a lot of money he notes and more than enough for he, his wife and two children. Of course, he was making $650,000 at Notre Dame and the Irish likely would've gone higher if he used Miami as leverage. That isn't his way though. He didn't interview for every head job that was interested.

"I took a significant pay cut," he said. "Not small. Significant. That's where you have to be a little bit off."

He also could've held out for a different job and a bigger check either last winter or in another season or so. Notre Dame's former defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, left last December for Connecticut where he's being paid $1.5 million with bonuses that could go much higher.

So Martin took less money, and a far lower paying job than he likely could've found, to put his white-hot career on the line trying to turn around a horrible football team in a low-profile, yet highly-competitive conference.

And yet all he can talk about is how great it's going so far and how even greater it's going to be.

"That's part of that is the allure in doing this," he said. "A reporter came up to me after I took the job and honestly asked me, 'Do you think you can get this turned around?'

"And I said, 'Based on my last job and my last pay, if I can't then I am the dumbest person on the planet."

He laughed.

"And I may be."

He doesn't expect everyone to understand.

"Only time will tell."

That's the fun part.

 

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