Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin primed for reunion with Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Chuck Martin has loved Notre Dame every day for more than 49 years.

The streak ends — or at least, gets suspended — for a few hours on Saturday.

It began when Martin — the Miami (Ohio) fourth-year head coach — was born into an Irish Catholic family in Park Forest, Ill., on Jan. 8, 1968. The streak gained steam throughout his childhood — throughout decades of wins, losses, championships and coaching changes — then collided with his career when Martin served as an assistant coach in South Bend from 2010 to 2013.

Even when he left to accept the head coaching position at Miami in Dec. 2013, Martin loved Notre Dame.

Every day, all day.

Maybe more than anyone Brian Kelly has coached with.

“If you take away those (assistant coaches) that played here, the (Ron) Powluses and the Autry Densons and the Todd Lyghts, who absolutely bleed (Notre Dame) — for somebody that never went to Notre Dame, Chuck Martin has got to be at the top of the list,” Kelly, the eighth-year Irish head coach, said on Tuesday.

That’s what makes Saturday so difficult.

On one hand, when the Miami RedHawks (2-2) descend on Notre Dame Stadium at 5:18 p.m. on Saturday, Martin wants his team to beat the odds. He wants to pull one of the most memorable upsets in the history of either program. He wants to win, naturally.

But there’s a part of him — a big part — that never wants Notre Dame (3-1) to lose.

“I didn’t think about this four years ago (when the game was scheduled),” Martin said on a Mid-American Conference coaches teleconference this week. “I wanted Miami University to experience Notre Dame.

"If you’re a sports fan at all, we’ve got an opportunity to go play, in my opinion, in the most storied venue in the history of sports. I’m fortunate I was on the other side of that storied venue for four years, and even before that for 40-something years as a fan I was on that side of that storied venue.

“For our people to go to Notre Dame Stadium and get on Notre Dame’s campus — and I’m encouraging all the people at Miami to get there Thursday, get there Friday and enjoy Notre Dame for a couple days — you’re never going to have any other experience like it in the sports realm.”

Martin knows.

His players don’t.

That’s why, on Friday, the former Irish assistant coach will take his team to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. He’ll take his team to the Grotto. He’ll crisscross the campus, playing the part of enthusiastic tour guide.

He’ll put off the idea that, a day later, they’ll have to play a game.

“A lot of our kids don’t even know what those places are,” Martin said.

“We’ve got to get there Friday and show them the venue and show them campus, just so on Saturday they’re not like, ‘Oh my God, look at this place.’ ”

Martin has seen it. He’s lived it.

He loves it.

On Saturday, before the sun sets in South Bend, the streak will meet its maker.

“Standing on the visiting sideline at Notre Dame Stadium, like I’ve told many people, I’m almost 50 years old and I’ve never not rooted for Notre Dame a day in my life,” Martin said. “On Saturday at 5 o’clock, I’m going to be rooting against Notre Dame. That will be awkward for me.”

***

It may also be awkward for Martin to root against Kelly, and vice versa.

But if it is, they won’t acknowledge it.

“Chuck and I are not going to be playing the game,” Kelly said. “I know how he is going to prepare his football team. He knows how I'll prepare my football team. I think that's probably it.”

Their shared history, however, deserves a richer description. Martin first served under Kelly for four seasons at Grand Valley State (2000-03), where the pair won back-to-back NCAA Div. II national championships.

Seven years later, they reunited at Notre Dame, again leading a program to a national championship appearance in the 2012 season.

Along the way, they learned to work with each other, to trust each other.

To depend on each other.

“It’s weird, because I know him pretty well,” Martin said. “We hardly talk. We don’t really talk. BK is the person, to me, that I know if I ever need something, I call Brian Kelly and he’s going to get it done. There’s no doubt in my mind.

“But I’m not going to call Brian Kelly about a third-and-4 play.”

Especially not this week.

What would be the point, anyway?

“I don’t really need to call Brian Kelly to get his opinion on something,” Martin quipped. “I pretty much know Brian Kelly’s opinion on everything.”

He also knows Kelly’s coaching style — who he is, who he isn’t.

How he’s changed, and how he hasn’t.

“Brian Kelly’s never going to change,” Martin said. “Everybody said he’s going to change or he has changed. He always has assessed his team and his organization and looked at all phases, on and off the field. He’s always been able to sit back and have a clear mind and make clear decisions.

“When I got to Grand Valley, we were a pro-style offense. Next thing you know we were a spread offense. We were a spread offense, because it was best suited for our team at the time. He’s been changing for years subtly, but he doesn’t change his big-picture values. He doesn’t change who he is.

“Looking at his team and what his team needs and what his organization needs, I’ve always said he’s the best off-the-field head coach in the world.”

***

Of course, that wasn’t the case in 1973.

Back then, the best coach in the world (according to Martin) also resided at Notre Dame.

“The first thing I knew about anything in the world is Ara Parseghian, and Notre Dame beating Alabama and winning a national title,” Martin said.

Before Parseghian — who passed away last month at age 94 — won a pair of national titles in his 11 seasons at Notre Dame, he kicked off his coaching career at his alma mater:

Miami (Ohio).

Martin took the opposite route.

But when he arrived in Oxford, Ohio, Ara was already there.

“I’m not a memorabilia guy. I’m not a guy that’s very sentimental at all,” Martin said. “I don’t have anything in my office. But there was a note from Ara when I took this job, that he wanted to see me get ‘The Cradle of Coaches’ turned around.

“The one keepsake I have in my entire career is a letter from Ara Parseghian.”

OK, maybe two letters.

“Last year, when we had a historic run, when we went from 0-6 to 6-6, he wrote me another note about how proud he was and getting Miami football back to where it belongs,” Martin said.

“It means a lot to me, not because I knew Ara very well, but just because he was my childhood idol.”

***

In 2013, a year before Martin was hired, Miami (Ohio) went 0-12.

In his first season, the RedHawks went 2-10.

In 2015, they improved to 3-9.

Last year, they closed the regular season with six consecutive wins, reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

As of Tuesday evening, Notre Dame was a 21-point favorite in Saturday’s game.

For Martin — and Miami — long odds are nothing new.

“We’ve been through a lot here, rebuilding this thing,” Martin said. “Some of these kids have been through football purgatory, with what they had to go through for a couple years to get to this point where we’re a competitive team. So our kids are going to go play Saturday.

“Physically, I think there’s times we may be overwhelmed at certain positions. You can’t really do anything about that. But I think our kids will be excited about the challenge.”

Martin is excited, and he isn’t.

He’s conflicted.

That’s love.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin (right) will play against his former program, Notre Dame, on Saturday (SBT File Photo).