Mike Martin’s Half Life
Tales From 35 Years of Coaching FSU Baseball…and Thoughts on the Elusive College World Series Championship
If Mike Martin “makes it” through the 2014 season (his words), he will have spent half of his life as the head baseball coach at Florida State. The 70-year-old skipper is leading the Garnet and Gold for the 35th consecutive year. In fact, 2014 is a big year across the board in the Martin family. In addition to the milestone birthday and his tenure at FSU, Martin and his wife Carol will celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2014. And while others in his position would ride off into the sunset, “11” as he’s known by most (his jersey number), relishes the opportunity to lead the ’Noles for as long as they will let him.
“My Mom always told me, you are only as old as you feel,” Martin said. “The game of baseball keeps me excited. I learn something on a daily basis if I allow myself to. Every day is fun as a coach. I still have that energy, because I love what I do.”
That love affair makes Martin one of the most popular and well-known faces on the Florida State campus. How long has he been at FSU? According to the Florida State record books, through the 2013 season there had been 3,598 baseball games played in FSU history, and Martin has been involved in 2,705 of them (both as a player and coach). The Seminoles’ head coach has been on the field or in the dugout for 1,990 of the team’s 2,623 all-time victories. Martin has been at Florida State so long that he was in the Seminole dugout before even Bobby Bowden stepped foot on the Tallahassee campus.
If there is a definition of success in your profession, Mike Martin has defined it.
“I’m just a small part of this,” he says of his success through the years. “I like to think that we’ve tried to do things the right way and have been very consistent.”
Heading into the 2013 season, Martin had won an astounding 1,723 games. Six different U.S. Presidents have been in office since Martin was named head coach at Florida State in 1980 — and in that time, his ’Noles have made 33 straight postseason appearances. His teams have won five Atlantic Coast Conference championships and have appeared in the College World Series 15 times. “11” is so good he took his ’Noles to Omaha in his first season in the dugout.
You know you have succeeded in life when you work at a field named in your honor. Most coaches are honored posthumously, but Martin has been a witness to all the fruits of his success. He’s been so good for so long that when the Seminole baseball team takes the field, they do so on Mike Martin Field. In 2007, he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
But from the outside, no matter how many wins or accolades he receives, there’s always one question that everyone asks Mike Martin. Will Florida State ever win the College World Series?
The thought of winning it all in Omaha so consumed Martin that no one was allowed to say the word in his presence for a long time. Chip Baker was an assistant coach under Martin for 18 years and has spent another 12 seasons working in administration. For three decades he’s worked side by side with “11” and says despite what anyone says, that World Series championship would mean the world to the Seminole skipper.
“It would be the cherry on top of the sundae of his whole career,” Baker said.
“It’s a fair question,” Martin said. “But I’m not obsessed (with winning a title). I don’t beat myself up like I used to. The goal is to get to Omaha. I made up my mind 20 years ago that I was not going to be Captain Ahab; I was going to work hard as I can, but I’m not going to allow winning a national championship or never winning one to define me. I want to be remembered as a guy that did everything he could to make a player better and at the same time see these young men become great fathers and, in some cases, grandfathers.”
That’s right, Mike Martin has been at Florida State so long, some of his former players have grandkids.
His career at Florida State officially began in 1965 when Martin transferred to Tallahassee and played baseball for two years before graduating in 1966. (He would earn his Master’s Degree in 1971). But after a short stint in the minor leagues, he decided that it was coaching that he had a real passion for — so he returned to Tallahassee in search of a job.
And one came open. It now seems far-fetched, but after hanging up his playing cleats for good, Mike Martin — one of the most successful college baseball coaches of all time —grabbed a whistle and became the head basketball — that’s right, basketball — coach at Tallahassee Community College and then Godby High School.
“Those were great days,” Martin remembers of his basketball coaching career. “I remember talking to my bride, and we were kicking around the idea of whether I wanted to (coach baseball at FSU) because I was the basketball coach at Godby. I went home and told her, ‘I don’t know if I want to go to FSU or not’ because I knew what was involved. The hours would change and it would be a different lifestyle. She said, ‘Are you crazy?’”
As Mike Martin always says, a happy wife equals a happy life — and he took his own advice.
His deep Southern accent and quick wit made him popular with his players and fans alike. Spend an afternoon on the golf course with “11” and you soak in decades of knowledge. All the while, he’s shooting in the 80s while you spend half the afternoon looking for a ball in the woods. He’ll do it with a smile as long as it’s your ball and not his.
“He hates to lose,” said Don DeLoach, who played on Martin’s first team at Florida State. “Whether it’s golf, badminton, baseball — whatever — he wants to beat your butt. He’s so competitive.”
There’s a family resemblance between “11” and his son and namesake (aka “Meat”), who have been coaching the Seminoles together for 16 years.
But “11” is also Florida State’s biggest cheerleader and foremost advocate. When you need to close the deal, you send in Mike Martin to make it happen.
Martin’s son, Mike Martin Jr., has been an assistant coach at Florida State for 16 years and played for his father before that. He says he’s fascinated on a daily basis at his father’s determination and ability to mold men. That was never more apparent than in 2008 when the ’Noles were on the ropes in the regional playoffs, and “11” came to the rescue.
“We got shut out against Bucknell 8-0 in the first round of the regionals and, remember, we had the best offensive team in the country that year,” Martin Jr. recalls. “We also hadn’t been to the College World Series in seven years — it was a big drought for us. And he (Martin) came in the locker room after that loss and said, ‘This is what we are going to do. We are going to beat Florida tomorrow, we are going to beat Bucknell and then Tulane twice and this is how we are going to do it. If you don’t believe me, get out of the clubhouse now.’ No one left — and everything he said happened. We won the regional and advanced to the College World Series. It was one of the most powerful coaching moments I’ve ever seen.”
Over the past 35 years, Martin has given hundreds of those speeches and has also had the good fortune of coaching big name players like Deion Sanders, two-time World Series Champion Buster Posey, JD Drew, Stephen Drew, No. 1 overall pick Paul Wilson and now, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. In fact, when Martin was in New York for Winston’s Heisman Trophy banquet, he was recognized in Times Square as “Jameis Winston’s coach” — a moniker that Martin embraces with opens arms.
“I honestly think that Jameis Winston wants to be the next two-sport guy,” Martin said. “He wants to play in the NFL and in Major League Baseball, and he has that chance — he’s that good. He got back on a Tuesday night after winning the National Championship, came to our baseball meeting on Wednesday, was taking batting practice on Thursday and then accepted the Manning award on Friday. Everyone wants to talk to him, and he’s so nice he’ll talk to everyone and sign every autograph.”
While Winston steals a lot of the headlines, Martin has his own fan club that spans the country. How popular is Martin outside the walls of Dick Howser Stadium? Baker says everywhere he goes, people ask about his boss, from the average fan to the sports superstar.
“I just ran into Alex Rodriguez in Houston and the first thing he asked me was, ‘How is Coach Martin?’ I saw Charles Barkley on a plane — he says, ‘How’s Coach Martin?’ Every person I know knows me through Coach Martin.”
He’s a teacher, an educator, motivator, cheerleader and family man. It’s no wonder his son, “Junior,” has stayed in Tallahassee for so long. He could have left for a head coaching position on numerous occasions, but you don’t pass up an opportunity to work with Mike Martin — even if he’s your father.
“That’s how you draw it up, it’s the American dream,” said Mike Martin Jr. “You work your tail off, do things right and good things happen to you. It’s amazing he’s 70 and still going strong with the fire and passion. He’s a good man.”
Speaking of Mike Junior, “11” says that having his son by his side all these years has been a blessing. Some of his greatest memories in the game involve his son — including one when, for one moment in time, Martin stepped aside as head coach of the ’Noles and took in the action as a dad.
“When we went to Omaha in ’94, Mike Jr. was on deck and Doug Mientkiewicz was hitting and I’m flashing signs and all of a sudden I’m thinking there’s Doug’s mom and dad watching their son play and 50 sets of mommas and dads are watching their sons play, and they are getting to enjoy the fruits of those young men’s hard work to accomplish what they have. I’m a coach and my son is on deck and I’ll be coaching him and I said, ‘Dadgummit, when he walks up there, I’m not coaching, I’m going to sit there as a daddy and look back on the days we hit in the batting cage and enjoy this.’”
So Martin stopped coaching for a few minutes. He didn’t give a sign to the base runners and didn’t tell his son what to do. Naturally, both were wondering what was happening in the dugout, but after Mientkiewicz singled, Martin decided to soak in the moment.
“We were in the first base dugout and I looked around the field and looked at the 24,000 people and worked my way around the stadium,” Martin said, “I knew he’d be looking at me, and I did glance at him but I didn’t acknowledge him. The third pitch, he hit a line drive up the middle for a base hit. Once he did that, I became a coach again; but that moment, being a proud father, is one I will never forget.”
“We are constantly on the go,” said Martin Jr. “He’s my boss and my dad, which is pretty cool. There are times I’ll see him after ball games and he’s working with my kids and I say, that’s pretty neat because he’s enjoying spending that time with his grandkids and my boys are enjoying time with him. One day life will calm down, and we’ll reflect and cherish what he’s done.”
Mike Martin has molded men for over 35 years. His legend is so deep at Florida State that no coach will ever surpass it, nor will any coach have the luxury of coaching at the same school for as long as “11” has. We live in a “What have you done for me lately” world where coaches come and go in three to five years — even when they are winning. Now at 70, Martin isn’t going anywhere despite questions about how much longer he can lead the ’Noles. Even “Junior” says he doesn’t know how long his dad will coach Florida State but says anyone who thinks he’ll hang it up soon will be sorely disappointed.
“He doesn’t like talking about it. People ask me about it all the time, and I don’t know — no one does,” said Martin Jr. “I think the day he can’t get into a fielding position to throw or get up and down like he does — maybe then he’ll consider it, but I don’t see that happening in the near future. He’s still going strong and still enjoys it.”
Behind-the-scenes video of the photo session with Mike Martin and Mike Martin Jr.
What others are saying about Mike Martin:
“If there’s a coach that deserves to win (the College World Series), it’s him. And I hope he does it before he retires. But if he doesn’t — if he doesn’t — it won’t take away from the career that that guy’s had. It’s unparalleled.”
— Mike Fox, University of North Carolina baseball coach, from ESPN.com
“Our baseball program not only consistently wins but also excels in the classroom.”
— Randy Spetman, former Florida State University Athletic Director
“He’s a mentor from afar. What you have here is because of him. Thirty years, to think that he was just starting coaching when I was graduating from high school is unbelievable.”
— Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt baseball coach, commenting after losing to FSU
“Here’s a guy I have been with for 30 years and, besides my Dad, he has been the most influential person in my life. I know what he wants. If he’s happy, I’m happy.”
— Chip Baker, Former Florida State assistant coach