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Mike Martin's Legendary Career Comes To An End In Omaha

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Photo by Cliff Welch

OMAHA — The chant rose from behind the third base dugout at TD Ameritrade Park.

Eleven. Clap-clap. Eleven. Clap-clap.

Inside the dugout, Mike Martin, Florida State’s legendary head coach, heard the cheers. His 40-year career had just come to an end at the College World Series, where Texas Tech defeated Florida State, 4-1, in an elimination game Wednesday. His retirement, planned for more than a year now, had arrived.

But Martin wasn’t about to leave the fans who had supported his program—his alma mater—all these years. He climbed the dugout steps one last time and doffed his cap to the crowd, who was chanting the uniform number that has become synonymous with his name over the last four decades.

“Thank you,” he said. “Love y’all.”

Martin didn’t belabor his curtain call. With that he returned to the dugout and soon was headed up the tunnel to the locker room, where his team waited for him one final time. He told them how proud he was, how much they had accomplished to get back to Omaha.

“The effort that they showed, the togetherness that was displayed got us back to Omaha,” he said. “They deserve an awful lot of credit, and I hope that they don’t beat themselves up, no matter what happened during the game.”

In April, Florida State’s RPI had approached 100, well outside the range necessary for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles righted the ship down the stretch and played well enough to get into the tournament, extending their 42-year postseason streak. The selection committee said they were one of the last four teams in the field, but once they were there, they didn’t play like it. They swept through the Athens Regional and the Baton Rouge Super Regional, beating both Georgia, the No. 4 overall seed, and Louisiana State, the No. 13 overall seed, twice on their home fields.

Florida State began its CWS stay with a 1-0 victory against Arkansas, the No. 5 overall seed, and the dream ending for Martin—a long elusive national championship—felt a little more possible. But the Seminoles' offense was stymied by Michigan lefthander Tommy Henry, setting up Wednesday’s elimination showdown with Texas Tech. In the end, Florida State’s offense, long a hallmark of Martin’s teams, faltered, and it was limited to three hits in both losses in Omaha.

The Seminoles’ magical postseason run was suddenly over and, with it, Martin’s storied career. He is the winningest coach in college sports and finishes with a record of 2,029-736-4. In all 40 years of his head coaching career, he has led the Seminoles to at least 40 wins and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. He reached the College World Series 17 times in his career and twice played for a national championship. His consistency is unparalleled, and his wins record is unbreakable. Martin does, however, finish without a national championship, the one thing his trophy case is missing.

Martin was an assistant coach at Florida State 40 years ago when Dick Howser, then the head coach, was hired away by George Steinbrenner to manage the Yankees. Martin, who had been passed over for the job two years earlier in favor of Howser, was promoted and he has been head coach ever since. All he wanted was an opportunity and once Florida State gave it to him, he ran with it. He elevated the program into a national powerhouse and perennial contender.

Kids grew up dreaming of playing for Martin and on Wednesday, these Seminoles did that for the last time. Inside the locker room, they cried and exchanged hugs, their season over. Third baseman Drew Mendoza, one of the team’s captains, said it was an honor to play for Martin.

“To have the success that we’ve had in the last three years, the ACC championships, two trips to Omaha, 40 wins every year, just to experience that with him and be a part of his legacy, it’s been a dream come true,” Mendoza said. “Just to be with him day in and day out and just know the kind of person he is and to grow as a man with hm at the helm, it’s been everything that I could have dreamed of.”

Assistant coach Mike Martin Jr., who has worked on his father’s staff for 22 years, said the clubhouse was more emotional this year.

“This one was a little more because they loved him,” Martin Jr., said, before correcting himself. “Shouldn’t act like he’s dead, they love him. It’s hard on everybody.”

While his players came to grips with the end of their season, Martin addressed the media in the coaches’ locker room. In the half-lit room, he sat in front of an empty locker, illuminated by lights from the TV cameras.

The day’s finality hadn’t yet set in. Six hours earlier, he and Martin Jr. and the rest of the coaching staff had been preparing for Texas Tech, trying to find a way to extend the season and setup a rematch against Michigan in the bracket final. Half an hour ago, they had been trying to get a couple hitters on base to bring Mendoza, their All-American, to the plate in the ninth inning.

Martin said he thought it might sink in a few days later when he has to clear out his office.

“When I start cleaning out the office and looking at old pictures—maybe even myself when I didn’t have gray hairs,” he said. “There’s so many great memories that Florida State University has provided for me and my family.”

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Martin had gotten another one of those moments the night before. On Tuesday night in Omaha, an off day for the Seminoles, Martin and his family—his wife Carol, his children and grandchildren—gathered at Sullivan’s Steakhouse. It was a typical family dinner—Martin instructing his grandchildren about manners and complaining that Martin Jr. ordered a plate of calamari that cost $50, although Martin conceded that he ate half the calamari.

It was a night that Martin treasured.

“It was a great family evening,” Martin said. “We had a tremendous meal. It was a meaningful experience, one that I will always remember.”

Carol has been with Martin every step of the way—their 55th anniversary is next week—and she was with him after the final out Wednesday. After Martin emerged from the locker room to go to his final press conference in Omaha, he greeted his family. Three generations of Martins sat in the front row of his press conference, as he tried to put the game, the season and his career into perspective.

Martin will have more family time in the months and years to come. He has a Mediterranean cruise lined up with Carol and some Seminole boosters that will quickly check two items off his retirement wish list. Martin has never been on a cruise and he has never been to the Holy Land, both of which he’ll accomplish this summer.

After that, Martin’s plans aren’t as certain. An avid golfer, he’s sure to spend more time on the links. And he’s promised not to be far from Florida State sporting events—football in the fall, basketball in winter and, of course, baseball in the spring.

Who Martin will be watching leading the Seminoles next spring remains an open question. He has made it clear that his preference is for Martin Jr. to succeed him, but no announcement has been made and the final decision won’t be his. Whoever the next coach is will inherit a good returning core. Florida State on Wednesday started three freshmen and two sophomores and had 10 more underclassmen on its roster in Omaha. The expectation again will be another season of at least 40 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance and then to again chase the program’s first national championship.

But, for the first time in 40 years, figuring out how to keep the Seminoles rolling will fall to someone other than Martin. The next coach will find the program in a good position, but following one of the game’s greatest coaches will not be an easy act.

That all remains in the future, however. On Wednesday night, Martin stepped down from the podium in the press conference and was again met by his family.

“Come on, big guy,” his granddaughter said.

His arm around his wife, Martin walked out of the stadium for the last time. Much has changed in the last 40 years since he took over at Florida State. The College World Series has moved from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park. The schedule, the rosters, the NCAA Tournament, Florida State’s conference affiliation, the way the game is played, the popularity of the game, the money in the game—all of it is different.

The game has changed around Martin, but he has not. He is esteemed by his peers for his consistency, his approach to coaching, his graciousness, for the model he has set. As the winningest coach in history, he is a true legend of the game, but he doesn’t want that to be his legacy.

“I want to be remembered as a guy that did it right, that put education first, that made sure that guys understood what’s expected of them, that they’re coming to Florida State to get a degree first,” he said. “We’re not a school that just wants baseball players. We’re a university that demands that you do what you’re supposed to do in the classroom, and that’s give it your best shot.”

Martin has given it his best shot for 40 years and provided a shining example for coaches everywhere. His career ended without the national championship that he has long been chasing, but as he left TD Ameritrade Park, his head was held high.

Martin walked out of the stadium and was met by about 10 fans. Some were Florida State fans, some were not. He signed autographs and talked to all of them. Once he had signed everything and shaken all their hands, he stepped into a black minivan to take him back to the team hotel. It pulled away from the curb and drove off into the Omaha night, the legend slipping back into the crowd.

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