Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Good men leave huge void

Posted by Eric Fisher On March 25

It’s the end of an era in the Big 5. When next season begins, it will be the first time in 35 years that Phil Martelli and Fran Dunphy won’t be part of a Big 5 program. Their absence will leave a void in the Big 5 and the Philadelphia sports scene.

Dunphy finished his 13-year tenure as Temple’s head coach on Tuesday with an 81-70 loss to Belmont in a “first four” game of the NCAA Tournament. Earlier that day, Saint Joseph’s announced a “leadership change” in its men’s basketball program. Basically, it meant that Martelli, who spent 24 years as head coach on Hawk Hill after 10 years as an assistant coach, was fired.

Dunphy wasn’t fired, but he was certainly given a nudge out the door. Nearly one year ago, Temple announced that Dunphy would coach one final season before stepping aside so that assistant coach Aaron McKie, a former Temple star and 76ers starter, could take over.

Universities have the right to hire and fire coaches. The Owls were 16-16 and 17-16 in the two seasons before the announcement was made that Dunphy would coach one more season. The Hawks haven’t had a winning season the past three years, going 11-20, 16-16 and 14-19.

Dunphy and Martelli know that college basketball is a business. Losing records and empty seats make the coach’s seat extremely hot.

If you doubt that college basketball is a business, look at all the revenue raked in by the NCAA Tournament. Or, you could look at the three-paragraph statement Saint Joseph’s released when it dismissed Martelli. Basketball is described as “an important strategic asset for Saint Joseph’s.” And, no, that wasn’t written by Sixers owner Joshua Harris or former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie – at least not as far as I know.

But college basketball isn’t simply about business from a dollar and cents perspective. College basketball, at its best, is the business of molding young men.

Martelli and Dunphy both cared about their players as people. Their players weren’t disposable parts, to be discarded when their basketball careers were done. Martelli and Dunphy both saw value in their players beyond on-court statistics.

There are other similarities between Martelli and Dunphy. Both have well-deserved images as good men. They are active leaders, both locally and nationally, in raising money for Coaches vs. Cancer. Dunphy has always been a class act during his 13 years at Temple and 17 seasons as Penn’s head coach. Martelli, with his quick wit, is a media favorite.

Both, however, have another side to them. Contrary to his fatherly public image, Dunphy was a tough coach. In an excellent article by philly.com’s Mike Jensen, former Penn player Brian Grandieri recalls a practice during Selection Sunday. According to Grandieri, Dunphy pointed toward the cameras and said, “See all those (expletives). They think I’m a good guy. I’m a (expletive) bad guy. I don’t care about those guys. I care about you guys, and giving your best.”

Similarly, Martelli wasn’t always a smiling bundle of joy. At one news conference during the Hawks’ undefeated 2003-04 regular season, Martelli responded to an opinionated “inside basketball” question that annoyed him with an intentionally nonsensical answer – delivered with a straight face and even tone – while the reporter nodded his head and furiously scribbled down the answer.

One year later, while standing in the gym a few moments after interviewing Martelli in his office a day or two prior to the Atlantic 10 Tournament, I heard Martelli express his wrath upon learning that there was a conflict between the time the media was told to arrive and the time he wanted to begin practice.

None of the behind-the-scenes revelations, however, changes the fact that Dunphy and Martelli are terrific college basketball coaches. Although both are certainly proficient at X’s and O’s, that’s not what college coaching is all about. At least that’s not all it should be about. College coaching should be about developing young men, both as players and as people.

And there are few, if any, who do that better than Phil Martelli and Fran Dunphy.

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