40 Years Later, Mike Martin Is Unparalleled

Image credit: Mike Martin (Photo by Don Juan Moore)

Now, as Mike Martin prepares for his 40th season as head coach at Florida State, it seems impossible to imagine the Seminoles without him. Between his playing and coaching career, he has been a part of the program for 47 of its 72 years of existence. The field the Seminoles play on bears his name. His No. 11 has become synonymous with his name in Tallahassee.

Martin is now the winningest coach in college baseball history, but how he came to be the head coach at Florida State, his alma mater, feels improbable 40 years later.

Dick Howser, the best player in Florida State history, had returned to his alma mater in October 1978 as head coach after an all-star career in the big leagues and a decade as the Yankees’ third base coach. Martin had been an assistant coach at FSU for four seasons before Howser’s appointment as head coach and was disappointed to be passed over for the head job after Woody Woodard was hired away for a job in the Reds’ front office. But he remained on staff under Howser, who directed the Seminoles to a 43-17-1 record and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

That fall, about a year after he arrived in Tallahassee, Howser got a call in the dugout from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner asking him to come down to his ranch in Ocala, Fla., to talk about taking over as New York’s manager.

“Dick told me he was going to be gone the next day,” Martin said. “The next day went by and about 6 o’clock he called me and said, ‘I’ve just taken the Yankees job. I don’t see why you won’t be the next coach.’ I remember not being able to speak for at least five seconds. I was speechless.”

Since Steinbrenner called Howser up to the big leagues, no college coach has jumped directly into a big league manager’s job.

Howser turned out to be right about Martin succeeding him at Florida State. About a month later, FSU president Bernie Sliger called collect from the Atlanta airport while he was on his way to a speaking engagement to tell Martin, then 35, that he was being promoted.

In an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat that day, Martin made it clear he did not harbor the pro ball aspirations of Howser and Woodard, who had both played in the big leagues. Martin played three years in the minors and joked that he would not leave even for a job with the short-season Mankato Mets, one of his minor league teams. The jokes aside, Martin made it clear that he was committed to the Seminoles.

“I have no intention of ever leaving Florida State,” Martin said at the time.

He meant it. Much in college baseball has changed over the last four decades, but Martin is still at Florida State.

“I wanted an opportunity,” Martin said. “Florida State gave me an opportunity in 1980. This is where I wanted to finish my career.”

Martin, 74, will do just that later this year after announcing last June he would retire following the 2019 season. He became the winningest coach in college baseball history last year, breaking Augie Garrido’s record, and enters this spring with a career record of 1,987-713-4.

Martin has been the model of consistency among college coaches. He has led Florida State to at least 40 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance in each of his 39 seasons as head coach. That has preserved the program’s 41 straight seasons with an NCAA Tournament appearance, which ranks second all time to only Miami and its 44 straight appearances.

Martin has led the Seminoles to the College World Series 16 times and won 13 regular-season conference titles—nine in the Atlantic Coast Conference and four in the Metro Conference.

(Photo by Don Juan Moore)

Martin’s career has been remarkable—and it’s not done yet. Florida State enters the year ranked No. 6 and is again one of the favorites in the ACC. With third baseman Drew Mendoza and lefthander Drew Parrish, the team captains, leading a young but talented roster, the Seminoles have the pieces to make this a special season in Tallahassee.

Despite all of that, it is business as usual for Florida State. Martin addressed the team at the start of fall practice, warning them against the distractions that are sure to come as one of the game’s legends prepares to step aside. Away from the field, Martin admits he sometimes thinks that this is the last time he will go through a season as a coach. But once he steps on the field, all those distractions fade away.

“There’s a lot of things that are going through my mind, the nostalgia, the thrills I’ve had in coaching,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you in all honesty, once practice starts I can’t change. I’ve got to be the same guy. I could change, but I can’t change.”

And so, for one final time, Martin is trying to figure out how to get the most out of his roster, how to again win 40 games, get into the NCAA Tournament and then chase the national championship that has eluded him throughout his career.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: No, Mike Martin has not won a national title. He has won 1,987 games, but the winningest coach of all-time’s résumé is missing the biggest prize. He has twice lost national championship games, in the era before the College World Series expanded the finals to a best-of-three series.

“For me to say that winning a national championship is not important to me, that would be a huge lie,” Martin said. “I pray to win a national championship.”

For some around college baseball, Martin’s failure to win a national championship is used as a cudgel any time he is mentioned as one of the game’s greats. And, in some ways, it does complicate his legacy. He is the winningest coach of all time, the most consistent coach ever, has never endured a dry spell nor not lost a step at the end of his career. But he also has never lifted the trophy aloft in Omaha, something that Garrido did five times at Cal State Fullerton and then Texas.

There is no coach with a résumé quite like Martin’s in any sport. The 12 winningest major league managers all won at least one World Series. The five winningest Division I college football coaches and six winningest Division I men’s basketball coaches all have national championships. The six winningest NFL coaches all won titles.

Former NBA coach Don Nelson may come the closest. He holds the NBA’s career wins record and is credited for the innovation of the point forward, but he never won a title in 31 seasons. In fact, Nelson’s teams never even played for a championship.

Some of this speaks to the sheer difficulty of winning the College World Series, a task which is only getting more difficult as more schools get more serious about college baseball.

Getting to Omaha is hard; winning there is harder. And to win the 10 NCAA Tournament games currently required to claim a national championship requires a bit of luck to go along with talent and guile.

So, while some get hung up on Martin’s lack of a championship, his peers remain in awe of his accomplishments.

“I hate the fact that everyone wants to dwell on the fact Mike has not won the last game in Omaha,” said Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri, who is third on the active all-time wins list. “He’s been to Omaha 16 times. That in itself is one of most remarkable accomplishments. I’ve taken probably four teams there that I thought could win the national championship and we didn’t.

“To win the national championship you have to have a great team and a lot of good fortune. Sometimes it’s been unfavorable to him. I hate that people keep emphasizing that. He’s one of the greats of all time.”

Martin has one more chance at the national title but regardless of how this season plays out, he has more than proven that he belongs among the game’s elite. No coach’s career can be defined by championships alone. And Martin’s is no different.

Martin wants that national championship, not as validation but because he is a competitor. But he has never allowed himself to pursue the College World Series with single-minded focus. He realizes his job is bigger than wins and losses. He wants to help his players develop on the field and also off it.

Mike Martin Jr., who played for his father and has coached under him for 22 years, said that is part of what drives him.

“The brightest that he lights up behind the scenes is alumni weekends,” Martin Jr. said. “The former players come back toting their kids—they have their families, they’ve got their degrees—that’s what really excites him. To see them happy and content and productive members of society, that’s what gets him going.”

Deion Sanders (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Throughout Mike Martin’s career, an incredible wealth of talent has come through Florida State. He has coached dozens of All-Americans and big leaguers, a record three College Player of the Year winners (Jeff Ledbetter, J.D. Drew, Buster Posey), a first overall draft pick in both MLB (Drew) and the NFL (Jameis Winston) and one NFL Hall of Famer (Deion Sanders).

Martin can regale audiences with stories of those superstars and their highlights—his recollection of Marshall McDougall’s record six-homer game is incredibly detailed, and he has stories of Posey and Sanders locked and loaded—but he isn’t interested in naming the best players of his career. The Seminoles have always been more than a few stars, and Martin remembers the supporting players just as much.

“There are guys who have meant so much to our program that took a back seat to the guys who got the big contracts and went on to become outstanding major league players,” Martin said. “J.D. Drew had an unreal junior year. Unreal. The numbers are staggering—what he accomplished. But he had a guy hitting behind him that also had an unbelievable year in leading the NCAA in doubles—his name is Jeremy Morris.

“Jeremy Morris pops in my mind just as much as an of the outstanding players that we’ve had.”

Martin’s consistency is what is most remarkable about his tenure. His Seminoles have the longest streaks in the country—by far—for winning at least 40 games and making the NCAA Tournament. To do that, you need players such as Drew and Posey. But you also need a lot of players like Morris.

Martin believes the key to the Seminoles’ consistency goes well beyond the field. He credits his assistant coaches over the years, as well as the support from the university and fans. It all goes to create an atmosphere that has kept propelling FSU to success year after year.

“It truly is a family atmosphere,” he said. “If that sounds a little corny, it’s nothing more than the truth.”

Florida State’s consistency also clearly has a lot to do with Martin himself. Over the last 40 years he has found a formula that works, but he has also been willing to tweak it when necessary to stay at the forefront of the game.

In many ways, Martin has been ahead of his time. His teams were emphasizing an approach that favored on-base percentage long before Moneyball. Martin Jr. said he often sees his father’s influence on opponents, from pickoff plays to pregame routines.

Perhaps most notably, Martin’s personality as a coach has stood the test of time. Much has been made of today’s generation of players not responding to the in-your-face methods of motivation favored by past generations. That has never been Martin’s style. He is firm when needed, but he isn’t one for tough love or profane tirades or throwing equipment to get his point across.

“There’s no cheating, no cutting corners, no berating—the old Bobby Knight way of coaching,” Martin Jr. said. “He has a firm hand, but a loving hand as well. Guys appreciate that, respect that and buy in.”

Martin’s personality is part of what makes him so respected around the country. He is gracious in victory and defeat, and never seems to lose perspective.

“God made a different coach here,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He’s remarkable. He’s a model of what is great in college baseball. I’ll never forget him. I wish I could take days and be with him during his final year.”

(Photo by Don Juan Moore)

Next year college baseball will be different without Martin in the dugout, just as it is without Garrido or Pat Casey or Jim Morris or Wayne Graham or Mike Gillespie or Mark Marquess, all of whom have retired in the last few years. Florida State has not yet announced a succession plan—a much discussed topic around the sport—and Martin understands the decision is out of his hands.

“I think it’s pretty easy to figure out who I want to be the next coach, but I will have no say in it,” Martin said. “That’s the way it should be.”

Martin is also uncertain of what he will do in retirement, but he has a lot of ideas. He wants to travel more—to the North Carolina mountains where he grew up, to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, to go on a cruise for the first time. He’s sure to play a lot of golf, despite the game’s ability to drive him up “a dadgum wall.” He doesn’t want to paint the house or clean the gutters—but he’s not against cutting the grass.

One thing that is certain is Martin will remain a presence around Florida State.

“I’ve got to be out there for the football games and the basketball games and in our ballpark when we’re playing,” he said. “I’m not going to stay away from the ballpark, I assure you that.”

Martin’s final season in the dugout has a chance to be special. With captains Mendoza and Parrish leading the way, the Seminoles have plenty of potential. And after a disappointing ending to last season combined with the emotion of Martin’s farewell season, they will be highly motivated.

Florida State is coming off a season that saw it go 43-19, win the ACC Tournament (Martin’s eighth ACC Tournament title) and enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 7 overall seed. But the Seminoles were stunned in the Tallahassee Regional, going 0-2 to bring their season to an early end.

“It left a salty taste in our mouth after last year,” Parrish said. “We’re eager to prove everyone wrong after last year.”

Martin’s contract was set to expire after last season and in the immediate aftermath of the season, it was unclear whether he would extend it. But he said he and then-FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox had already agreed to extend his deal an extra year and that last season’s ending had no effect on that decision.

As talented as the Seminoles are this season, Martin doesn’t have an easy task. Their projected starting lineup includes four freshmen from the nation’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class. Behind Parrish, the pitching staff will be relying on a talented but inexperienced group of sophomores.

With such a young team, Mendoza and Parrish know they have a big responsibility as captains.

“It’s fun to be in that role with so many new guys on the team,” Mendoza said. “The team chemistry has been special up to this point and it’s only going to get better.”

Mendoza and Parrish also have hefty responsibilities on the field. Mendoza has first-round potential and will hit in the middle of the lineup. Parrish took over as the Seminoles’ top starter last season after ace Tyler Holton was injured on Opening Day. Parrish spent last summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and will be needed to provide consistency on Friday nights.

If Mendoza and Parrish can shoulder big loads, it will allow younger players such as freshman shortstop Nander De Sedas, freshmen outfielders Elijah Cabell and Robby Martin and sophomore starting pitchers C.J. Van Eyk and Austin Pollock room to blossom. And if that happens, Omaha is well within Florida State’s reach.

The Seminoles are well aware of the expectations and that they represent Martin’s final shot at a national title. But they won’t allow that to overwhelm them.

“Every year (expectations) are the same thing—not only to get to Omaha but to win the whole thing,” Parrish said. “We can’t as a team look at it that we have to do this because then we have unnecessary pressure on us. We’ve got to expect to win and play how we know how to and let the rest take care of itself.”

Martin wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think with the youth on our club, we’ve just got to get out and play and start learning from mistakes that I know we’re going to make,” he said. “We’ve just got to be patient.”

It would be poetic if Florida State can send Martin out on top, with fireworks exploding in the Omaha sky above a dogpile of Seminoles in the TD Ameritrade Park infield. But he isn’t thinking about the fairy tale ending. He is just thankful for the chance to again compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, as he has done for the last 39 years.

All Mike Martin has ever wanted is an opportunity. And that’s what he and the Seminoles have in 2019.

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