OMAHA—Back in January, first-year Florida State pitching coach Mike Bell admitted he had no idea how his staff would shake out. The Seminoles had to replace ace Sean Gilmartin and closer Daniel Bennett, and they lacked any pitchers who had proven themselves as reliable starters or shut-down relievers at the D-I level.
But Bell expressed confidence that his new boss, long-time FSU coach Mike Martin, would figure it out.
Around the start of February, as Martin recalls it, he summoned Bell, fellow assistant Mike Martin Jr. and volunteer assistant Matt Matulia and asked them a simple question: Who is the best pitcher on the team? Everyone gave the same answer: junior righthander Robert Benincasa.
“And I looked at them all and said, ‘Why isn’t he closing?’ Because he was not figured in the rotation or in the closer role at that time, he was in the middle,” Martin said. “At that point, we made the decision to go with Benincasa as our closer. The rest is history.”
Benincasa and senior righty Hunter Scantling were the most experienced arms on the staff, and Martin decided the team would be best served by having them anchor the bullpen. That meant trusting freshmen Brandon Leibrandt and Mike Compton to hold down the top two spots in the weekend rotation.
“He said it, golly, probably two or three days into spring training: ‘This is what we’re going to do, and it’s going to work. This is our best club—put these freshmen here, put our experienced guys on the back end,'” Martin Jr. recalled. “Mike (Bell) and I looked at each other like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have trouble sleeping, throwing these two freshmen guys into the ACC.’ He makes guys better because of his trust in them, his faith in them. They love that.”
Martin Jr. has served as an assistant on his father’s staff for the last 15 years, and he said 2012 should go down as one of his dad’s best coaching jobs. The uncertainty in the pitching staff caused the Seminoles to open the year ranked No. 20 in BA’s preseason rankings, but they reached the top of the rankings by April and stayed there for seven weeks, en route to a runaway ACC title and a trip to the College World Series.
It was Florida State’s 15th trip to Omaha under Martin, who has led the ‘Noles to 44 or more wins and trips to regionals every year since he became head coach in 1980. Because he has maintained such a high level of performance year in and year out, Martin gets taken for granted by the college baseball world. But he shouldn’t. For his long-term consistency and this year’s national semifinals club, Martin is Baseball America’s 2012 Coach of the Year—for the first time in his illustrious career.
When FSU’s season ended with a loss to eventual national champion Arizona in Omaha, Wildcats coach Andy Lopez opened his postgame remarks by talking about Martin, whom he frequently faced head-to-head on the field and in recruiting when Lopez coached at Florida.
“First and foremost, that’s one of the classiest, most successful college baseball coaches this profession will ever find,” Lopez said of Martin. “He’s got a great program. He’s just an unbelievable coach, unbelievable program and coach. Those guys win 40 games like I make a peanut butter-jelly sandwich—they do it every year.”
That level of consistency has made Martin the third-winningest coach in Division I history—he is 1,723-594, and his .744 winning percentage is the second-highest among active D-I coaches behind only North Carolina’s Mike Fox. But Martin’s association with Florida State baseball runs much deeper than that; he has been part of the program for 40 of its 65 seasons, and 1,990 of its 2,603 victories, as a head coach, assistant or player.
Martin’s system—which is built around plate discipline and using the whole field, as well as concepts like teamwork and camaraderie—is tried and true, as Martin Jr. put it. His innate knack for putting players in the best position to succeed is also a big part of his success. He was right, for instance, about Leibrandt and Compton being able to hold down the first two slots in the weekend rotation—they went a combined 20-5, each posting ERAs in the 2.80s. And he was right about Benincasa being the best pitcher on the staff and about him being perfectly suited for the closer role—the righty went on to save 15 games and capture first-team All-America honors.
Benincasa, who signed for $145,000 as a seventh-round pick by the Nationals, called Martin as he drove to his first professional assignment in the New York-Penn League.
“He called me and doggone it, I want to be sure I don’t get emotional, because he said some things that really made the coaching profession real,” Martin said. “He said some nice things about his time at Florida State and how he’d see me in September when he comes back—things that make coaching so encouraging and so real. I’ll never forget the phone call.”
Florida State baseball is a tight-knit family, and alumni are always coming back to see their old coach. His full-time assistants, Martin Jr. and Bell, also played for the Seminoles. Despite growing up around the program, Martin Jr. said he wasn’t a great student and originally had his sights set on skipping FSU and going right to pro ball.
“I went to a junior college for a year—Manatee—and got down there and said, ‘Man, I’m having a good time and learning a lot down here,'” Martin Jr. recalled. “But all my buddies that particular year, Link Jarrett and Kevin McCray, were at Florida State and told me how much fun they were having. That culture—it became real to me. I got drafted, and still, I wanted to go back (to Tallahassee). It took some getting away from it to really appreciate it, and I think a lot of times that happens with a lot of players. There’s some real teary eyes (at the end of the season).”
There is an endearing, genuine quality about Martin’s gravelly Southern drawl, down-home colloquialisms and wholesome, blunt sense of humor. Players insist he is the same in private off the field as he is on the dais in Omaha, where he is equally gracious in victory and defeat.
“Coach Martin has been a man that’s meant a lot to me and my family,” said James Ramsey, Florida State’s captain and the son of another FSU captain on Martin’s first team. “He’s one of the main reasons I came to Florida State. He’s a man of God. He’s a man that does things that people don’t see behind the scenes for his players.”
Junior shortstop Justin Gonzalez echoed that sentiment, saying that if he needs to call Martin in the middle of the night, his coach will answer and help him through the tough times.
“I don’t even look to him as a coach; I look to him as a father,” Gonzalez said. “I had the blessing to be recruited to this university and play for coach Martin, and it’s been such a learning experience for me, about the game of baseball and how to play it the right way. He’s old school, and a lot of people don’t appreciate that. These 27 guys on this team appreciate every moment they’ve spent with coach Martin.”
Gonzalez alluded to Martin’s “old-school” teaching style; Martin makes it clear that, “We don’t sugarcoat it.” Behind his gentlemanly demeanor lies a deep desire to win.
“He’s ultra-competitive, that’s first and foremost,” Martin Jr. said. “He doesn’t show it, but there’s things that happen behind closed doors. People always ask, ‘He seems to calm, so nice.’ Yeah, he’s nice to the players, he tough, he’s demanding but it’s fair. He genuinely cares. But he’s been consistent. I think consistency is a good word for you. You know what you’re going to get. He cares about kids immensely.”
And as much as Martin wants to win, his desire to teach and to help boys become young men, as he put it, drives him more than anything else. So while Martin would love to win a national championship—he famously lacks a title despite leading the Seminoles to Omaha 15 times—his coaching career does not need any more validation.
“I don’t have to have a national championship to enjoy what I do,” said Martin, who just signed a three-year contract extension. “I will cherish every moment I have left on the field at Florida State, because I’ll be working with young men who want to get better in the sport of baseball. That’s what I still get out of it. I’m not going to change. You’re doggone right we’re going to work to get to Omaha next year. And if we get there we darn sure aren’t going to go through the motions. But if we don’t win it, I’m going to try the next year what I did this year: to get to Omaha and see what happens.”
After the Seminoles were eliminated in Omaha this year, a reporter asked Martin if his patience was being tried. Martin was introspective.
“I’ll tell you exactly how I feel: It’s Christmastime,” he said. “You get to come to Omaha, Nebraska, and experience the week of Christmas with great people. You’ll have memories that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life. How many guys get to be in the position I’m in right now with these outstanding athletes? Year in and year out has been a blessing. And sure, I’m disappointed. But you’ve got to look at the total picture. And I’m so proud to be a part of Florida State baseball.”
1981—Ron Fraser, Miami
1982—Gene Stephenson, Wichita State
1983—Barry Shollenberger, Alabama
1984—Augie Garrido, Cal State Fullerton
1985—Ron Polk, Mississippi State
1986—Skip Bertman, Louisiana State
Dave Snow, Loyola Marymount
1987—Mark Marquess, Stanford
1988—Jim Brock, Arizona State
1989—Dave Snow, Long Beach State
1990—Steve Webber, Georgia
1991—Jim Hendry, Creighton
1992—Andy Lopez, Pepperdine
1993—Gene Stephenson, Wichita State
1994—Jim Morris, Miami
1995—Rod Delmonico, Tennessee
1996—Skip Bertman, Louisiana State
1997—Jim Wells, Alabama
1998—Pat Murphy, Arizona State
1999—Wayne Graham, Rice
2000—Ray Tanner, South Carolina
2001—Dave Van Horn, Nebraska
2002—Augie Garrido, Texas
2003—George Horton, Cal State Fullerton
2004—David Perno, Georgia
2005—Rick Jones, Tulane
2006—Pat Casey, Oregon State
2007—Dave Serrano, UC Irvine
2008—Mike Fox, North Carolina
2009—Paul Mainieri, Louisiana State
2010—Ray Tanner, South Carolina
2011—Kevin O’Sullivan, Florida