’State’ of the Art
Bolstered by two consecutive national championships, Chuck Martin has helped solidify Grand Valley’s status as the elite football program in Division II.
Interview by Charlie PattonCOACH: Growing up in Park Forest, IL and graduating at Rich East H.S. in 1986, what role did sports play in your childhood?
MARTIN: Pretty much everything. As far as morning, noon, and night, that’s what I did. I had a brother about a year and a half older and I would hang out with him and his friends and play football during football season, basketball during basketball season, and baseball during baseball season. When I wasn’t playing it, I was usually watching it.
COACH: As a college-athlete at Millikin University, you excelled in both football, as an All-American free safety and place kicker, and in basketball, earning all-academic district honors. How has your athletic success helped develop your coaching skills?
MARTIN: I was an OK athlete, but certainly not an exceptional one. That’s why I didn’t play at some giant school that everybody’s heard of. Even in Division III, I wasn’t quite athletic enough to compete at that level. I think what largely let me play was that I was a student of the game and I liked watching game tape more than the next guy. So I kind of had to be a smarter player to even play football and basketball in college. I was already taking that coaching role as a player. I had to if I was going to survive.
COACH: You also succeeded in the classroom as an academic All-American. How did you keep your athletes focused on both football and academics? Does success in one field tend to lend itself to success in the other?
MARTIN: Well, my biggest thing is that I was a student athlete. I think we fill these kids’ heads with how hard it is to be a college student athlete and I think kids buy into that. They say it’s hard when you spend all that time on football. I tell my players, “I played football and basketball, I watched more tape than you guys could ever dream of watching, and I got a degree in four years.”
Because I played at a small school in Division III where there are no athletic scholarships, you graduated in four years and if you couldn’t graduate in four years, you couldn’t play sports. So my deal is, even in working with scholarship athletes I think my background has helped me tell players “Don’t tell me you can’t do it. Look at me, I played two sports and got a degree in accounting in four years. So, don’t tell me you can’t do it.” When you’re out there complaining that it’s too hard or that we’re using you, I think it’s a bunch of BS. I’ve been down that road and if I went to Michigan or Notre Dame on a full scholarship and took five years to graduate maybe I’d have different views on how hard it is to be a student athlete.
To me it’s an awesome deal being a student athlete. If anyone’s helping to pay for our school, as is true with most of us, we try to teach them to appreciate what they have here.
We’re not Div. I and there are kids that get more perks than we get, but on the other hand, there are tons of people that don’t get to be scholar-athletes and don’t get their school paid for.
Our goal is to get our kids to graduate in four and a half years, as most of our kids red-shirt. We’ve had a lot of success. A study that came out a couple of years ago showed football players at the scholarship level take on average 5.88 years to graduate from college. So we got kids graduating in those four and a half years and winning 52 games.
We’re showing that it can be done. We’re probably one of the few programs now that is expecting it to be done in that amount of time.
COACH: In 1992, two years after graduating from Millikin University, you took your first coaching job at Mankato State. The next year you were the linebacker’s coach, head golf coach, and assistant baseball coach at Wittenberg. What made you decide to pursue a career in coaching, and what particularly drew you to football?
MARTIN: I just think there’s a lot more to the game of football. There’s a lot more moving parts with eleven players on offense and defense and special teams. There are a lot more variables.
I always knew I wanted to coach. I earned a degree in accounting and got a pretty good job at a public accounting firm for two years. I went that route because it seemed like the thing to do. You get a degree and then use it.
But in the back of my mind I always knew that I really wanted to coach. I was prolonging the inevitable. It’s a pretty drastic career change when you go from wearing a three-piece suit to sweats. I always joke with my staff when they ask, “Why did you choose coaching?” Because it’s the only profession where you can wear sweats every day. As opposed to the three-piece suit and shirt and tie, I’m a lot more comfortable in grey sweats and hanging out with college kids everyday.
COACH: In 2000 you joined Brian Kelly’s staff at Grand Valley State. At this point, Kelly had repeatedly coached the team to winning records. How did working under Kelly help influence your own coaching tendencies?
MARTIN: I think every stop you make in your coaching profession, you learn. You learn from good and you learn from bad. But in Coach Kelly, I already had a head coach with nine years of expertise. He helped me learn Division II, because I had coached at Div. III and Div. I, and every Division is different in terms of recruiting and talent.
One thing he taught me was how to deal with the off-field part. He probably prepared me well to be a head coach because he was good at a lot of the big picture stuff, especially on the political side and the different hats you have to wear, from a fund-raiser, in dealing with media, dealing with administrators, and dealing with athletes’ parents and reporters.
As an assistant coach, you don’t have to deal with that. You just coach. I think he’s as good as anyone in the country at wearing both hats, and probably better than anyone else in the country in wearing the off-field hat.
So the big thing for me was learning from him was the off-field skills, not that he didn’t help me in coaching and the general knowledge of the game. But I learned a lot about the other role of the head-coach that I probably wouldn’t have learned under someone other than him.
COACH: Are there any other particular mentors that helped mold your coaching philosophy?
MARTIN: I worked for Rick Rasnick at Eastern Michigan in 1998. He was the opposite of Coach Kelly in that he didn’t really like all the off-field work. He just liked to coach football. I learned a lot from him about to run the football side of things and how to deal with players and with the organization of it.
So I really learned coaching football from Coach Rasnick. Not that he wasn’t good with the political stuff; he was just a teacher. That’s what he wanted to do: teach and coach football. So I think I had two pretty good guys back to back with Coach Rasnick and Coach Kelly. You take different things from each coach you work for and then find how they work for you.
COACH: In 2002, you were part of a coaching staff that led the Lakers to their first ever Div. II National Title. Describe the feelings of getting that first championship?
MARTIN: It was unreal. The first one may be the most exciting. But I don’t know about the most rewarding, because that was the best team we ever had. I don’t know if we’ll ever have a team as good as the 2002 team.
Offensively, we were absolutely ridiculous. We could score points whenever we wanted however we wanted. But it was most exciting as we had never done that and had come off a heart-breaking loss in 2001, where we wrenched defeat from the jaws of victory. So it was rewarding in that it was our first time and getting back there and losing that bitter taste from your mouth.
COACH: In 2003 when you were the team’s defensive coordinator, your team ranked in the top 10 nationally in four defensive categories. What defensive strategies do you incorporate into your coaching that yields this kind of success?
MARTIN: Well, recruiting good players is the most important thing along with having excellent coaches on the defensive side of the ball. Even with winning titles as a head coach, 2003 was probably the proudest year I had as a coach. We had lost fifteen starters off the 2002 team with eight starters on offense and seven starters on defense. We had five freshmen starters on offense, which is almost unheard of to win a national title with freshmen playing on half your offense. We didn’t score a lot of points in big games because we were very young.
Coach Kelly knew our defensive strength, played it to the best, and wasn’t afraid to punt. We won two games that year without scoring an offensive touchdown. To me, that was the worst team that we ever won a title with. And we won it by running the ball well, controlling the clock, and then playing some great defense. We got some key stops at times and got on a roll giving up nine points in the last three games against the best teams in the country, which is pretty impressive.
So for me, that was definitely the proudest year even though I was an assistant under Coach Kelly. Some people ask if it feels better to win a championship as a head coach, but I am still disturbed by that 2003 season. As an organization, that was the weakest and youngest team we ever had. We simply got down to Alabama and found a way to win there.
COACH: Defensive coordinators often become head coaches when they become known for their defense? So how did Grand Vally State’s QB, Cullen Finnerty, become famous last season for throwing over 40 touchdowns? What offensive philosophies put him ahead of his competition?
MARTIN: Well, we were pretty much a spread/no-huddle offense under Coach Kelly. We’ve kept the same style of offense. Our run game is what it was under Kelly, but we’ve changed our passing game because Cullen was a freshman and we just lost Curt Anes, who was probably one of the greatest players of Div. II football. A lot of things that we did in the past didn’t really suit Cullen, so our passing game evolved a lot differently.
For us, we want to be good on offense, defense, and special teams. I’ve been known as a defensive guy. I moved over to offense when I became a head coach. One of the things our AD takes pride in is that he claims I’m the only guy that has won a championship as defensive coordinator and as an offensive coordinator. Our offensive philosophy is to do whatever it takes to score points. If we got to run the ball or throw the ball, we don’t really care. I’m not an offensive or defensive guy; I just like to win football games. If we can win them in 2002 scoring points and people want to call us an offensive juggernaut, that’s fine. If we win 10-3 games with defense, like we did in 2003, then I’m fine with that too.
We try to do whatever is in the best interest of our football team. If we need score more points or run the ball, punt the ball, and play for field position then that’s what we do. I think the outside views you on whatever your stats are, and that’s who you are to them.
COACH: Your teams have always responded well with adversity. After losing in the quarterfinals of 2004, the Lakers won 28 straight games, including back-to-back DII championships. How did you motivate your players to respond with such success?
MARTIN: 365 days a year, we try to prepare ourselves for big moments and big games. We ask kids that we recruit, “Do you want to come to Grand Valley to win 50-0 in the regular season? Or do you want to come to be on the field during the biggest game of the season, hopefully on national television for the title game in Alabama?” So we take a lot of pride in preparing for those moments. And we look for kids that want those moments, because they are not for everyone.
We do a great job as a staff at sticking together. There’s days when the offense isn’t as good or the defense doesn’t work and no one points the finger. The beauty of our kids is they stick together. Everybody talks about sticking together and playing for 60 minutes, but even when you watch NFL games, you see teams come apart and unravel. We pride ourselves on being the team that never unravels. Our kids are the only athletes in the country that are immune to momentum. We don’t really believe in momentum, we don’t believe that if things go bad that they’re going to continue to go bad. They just plug away, keep scratching and clawing away, and find a way to win.
We’ve been 22-1 in the playoffs. We’ve been 85-5 overall, but I think our team takes more pride about our success in the playoffs.
COACH: Does the DII record 28 game win streak add more pressure on the team to win or help fuel momentum going into every game?
MARTIN: We’re definitely a confident group. When we step on the field, we feel we’re going to win the game. I think the negative is that it’s hard to live up to the expectation of winning every game by 30 points and earning a championship. People always ask us, “Are you going to have a good season?” I always respond, “What’s your definition of ‘good?’” 8-3 or 9-2 is a good year in our book.
Our fans and the media think 14-0 is the only thing that’s good around here. So there are some expectations to live up to. But we always are glad we work at a place that expects success as opposed to some places that get excited when they go .500.
The other thing we have to fight is complacency. It’s hard when you got young kids and even coaches who can read press clippings and believe you’re pretty darn good and smart. In actuality, we won a bunch of those 90 games that were really close and we could’ve lost. There was often a lucky dropped ball or bounce. The margin between victory and a loss is often very small. And when you think you’re better than you actually are, you tend to drop off pretty quickly.
We take a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished. You look at all sports at all levels, and there aren’t many teams that have accomplished what we have done. Not a lot of teams repeat championships. And there’s a reason for it. People win, and they’re not as hungry, or get as complacent and not work as hard. 365 days a year, we talk about complacency, who’s outworking us, and who wants to win more than us. That’s a natural course of action when you win: You want to win more because you beat them, and you want to win less because you’ve already done that.
There are a lot of good things about winning, but that’s something you got to fight everyday. Even as coaches, you got to fight it. You can’t just sit back and relax; otherwise you’ll be 5-5 pretty soon.
COACH: Are there any professional teams or Division I programs, whose style your program tries to emulate?
MARTIN: Not really. We don’t even try to emulate ourselves. In college, you’re losing players every year. The complexion of your team changes constantly. Your strengths and weaknesses change every year. When we lose Mike McFadden, the best defensive lineman in the country, we have to make up for that loss in another area.
For us, we try to look at each group of kids, find what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. We then work like crazy to put them in positions where they can do what they’re good at and not even think about what we can’t do. We like to think that we’re a bit of chameleon in that we can change. Other teams that have followed us over the years know that we have changed subtlety on offense and defense to match our strengths. So we’re not a system team that declares:
“This is what we do, this is our system, and if you don’t fit into our system, you can’t play for us.” We take a lot of pride in our offense that has changed a lot from Curt Anes to Cullen Finnerty. They’re both great players, but not necessarily similar players. So we had to change plays to mirror what they were good at. And we’re going to have to change for our new QB, too. Cullen would run around with his head cut off, and we’re not going to be able to do that next year with our new QB. You have to change with the players you get in college.
COACH: What are some of the difficulties in transitioning from being an assistant coach to heading the entire program?
MARTIN: I think there’s a huge learning curve. You try to think as a head coach as an assistant, but until you’ve been there, there’s not much you can do. In just the management of your day, there’s a lot more on a head coach’s plate. Sometimes you wonder why the head coach isn’t where he’s supposed to be, or wasn’t doing this or that.
When you become a head coach, you realize how many phone calls you get that you were shielded from as an assistant.
It’s just a huge learning curve. I think it helped working for good people. It helped to become a head coach at a place where I had been an assistant. I knew Grand Valley, and I knew what made us successful. I really feel for coaches that start at a new school in a completely new environment. I knew a lot of the people that I needed to know; I just needed to know how to deal with them in a different light.
Every single year, you get a lot better. I still think I’ve got a long ways to go as a head coach. I’d like to think that seven or ten years from now, I’m going to look back at these years and think about what I didn’t do very well. I know the first year was a major struggle, and even after year 2 and year 3 you take inventory and see what you didn’t do well. It’s just the nature of our profession. If you think you got it figured out, you’re kidding yourself. And if you do, I’d like to know you because I seem to learn something new everyday.
COACH: With Grand Valley State continuing to develop the on-campus stadium and reaching record highs in attendance, do you ever have trouble keeping the attention from getting to the player’s heads? What do you do to keep everyone in a team-first mentality?
MARTIN: No question. Everyday. People think that when they come to Grand Valley, they’re pre-ordained to have success. They don’t know how hard the kids have worked before them. You don’t just put on our uniform and win games. You win games because you work your tail off, work together, work in the weight room, and learn the game. It’s a big issue.
Surprisingly, it’s less of an issue with our older guys. Our older guys have figured out how they’ve gotten successful. So they stick with that mind frame. Our younger guys get caught up in all the hoopla and pageantry that surrounds Grand Valley football nowadays.
I tell them, “You’ve got a long ways to go to even get on the field. You’re all worried about your winnings, your uniform, and girlfriends, and those sorts of things. You’ve got your focus skewed on stuff that’s never going to allow you to play.” A lot of the younger guys get caught up in the hoopla.
But that’s a major concern. We have to fight everyday. Everyday we try to talk about that and who we are. Before 2000 we had never won a playoff a game here. 2001 we weren’t even on the map. Now all of a sudden we’re successful. Well, what happened to all those other teams that were successful before us?
It’s a year-by-year thing. We were the champs last year, but who knows who will win this year. Who’s ever stayed on top on any level? For me, that’s the challenge. We’ve already kept it going longer than we thought we could. Honestly, we don’t try to figure it out. We just work hard around here, take care of our own business, and if we win a bunch of games we get fired up.
People ask, “What’s your secret?” If we had a secret, we’d write a book, make millions of dollars, and I wouldn’t be coaching any more. There is no secret. You recruit your tail off, surround yourself with good people, and try to stick together through thick and thin.
I think the thing we do well is stick together. When stuff goes bad at our place, we don’t turn our back on each other. We fight together. We understand that when we play good teams, the ball doesn’t always go your way and you don’t make every play. You got to just keep plugging along. A lot of people say, “we weren’t good that day, you must be unhappy.” I’m just happy we win. Sure, we’ll try to play better the next week. A lot of things that people get bent out of shape about, we don’t get bent out of shape at Grand Valley.
COACH: Your teams have had many players receive All-American awards. What are some of the keys in recruiting these athletes?
MARTIN: Our assistants do a great job at exhausting every opportunity in recruiting players. Sometimes we find players that other people aren’t really recruiting.
The biggest factor is winning. Kids want to go to a successful program. The fact that we’ve always won here for years and years has been good. The last six years where we’ve won at a completely different level, that’s helped even further in getting kids excited. You got kids calling you for a change to show interest in Grand Valley State as opposed to having to call the kids and try and convince them to come.
So I’d say winning is the biggest factor when it comes to recruiting.
COACH: Do you have any aspirations for someday coaching a high-profile DI program or an NFL team?
MARTIN: My background’s a lot different than a lot of people. I played Div. III and really got into coaching at Div. III. I had visions of coaching at Div. III and maybe winning a title. My career was very fortunate. I caught a break and ended up at Grand Valley State. I’m the luckiest son of a gun in the world.
We got fired from Eastern Michigan in 1999. The greatest break in my professional career was getting fired from that job. We got let go, I ended up in Grand Valley State, and life’s been good ever since. I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’m at a pretty great place.
I don’t know if I’ll be coaching at Grand Valley State when I’m 65, but I’m certainly in no hurry to leave. Besides the financial reward, I’ve got the best job in the country. I’ve got a good chance to win, I love to win, and we get to coach great kids at a great school. We graduate kids at an alarmingly high rate, and a lot quicker.
I think the Div. II is more like what real life is all about. We all have a job offer out there that we’d take.