By Jonah Bronstein
About a month ago, Phil Martelli Jr. was offered the opportunity to join the men’s basketball coaching staff at the University of Delaware. Martelli believed it was a good career move. But it took him several weeks to decide whether he was willing to leave Niagara University.
“It was a really tough decision,” Martelli said by phone Monday after his first day on the job in Delaware. “It was a lot of hours thinking, a lot of lists being put together, reasons to stay, reasons to come to Delaware. A lot of conversations with my wife, some short, simple ones, some long, intellectual discussions.
“It was real hard because I’m leaving a great place, but more importantly, a great person in coach (Joe) Mihalich.”
Martelli arrived on Monteagle Ridge five years ago as a fresh-faced assistant, just three years out of college. The Purple Eagles went to the NCAA tournament in his first season, and over time, he became a strong recruiter for the program. He was recently listed as one of the top 50 low to mid-major assistant coaches by HoopScoopOnline.com.
Graduating point guard Anthony Nelson, Niagara’s all-time assists leader, said Martelli played a crucial role in his development.
“Coach Phil was the coach I spent most of my time with in the gym,” Nelson said. “Before and after practice. He really took time out with me and showed me what I was doing wrong so I could correct them. He also told me stories about players he had seen and had been around that could help me. But the most important thing about coach Phil to me was the faith he had in me. That really meant a lot.”
During his time here, Martelli married his girlfriend, the former Meghan Phelps, established a home in Lewiston, and witnessed his son, Philip Stephen, being born at Mount St. Mary’s hospital.
“I’ll remember all of the great people that we were fortunate to meet in the community up there in Lewiston and Niagara Falls,” Martelli said. “It will be a place we’ll always look back on with good memories.”
As was the case a year ago when longtime assistant Akbar Waheed took a job at Boston College, Mihalich said it was bittersweet to see Martelli depart.
“Part of my job as the head coach is to help not just the players, but the assistant coaches coming through, move up,” Mihalich said. “Everyone wants to be a Division I coach. And obviously, that means you can’t be an assistant coach at Niagara forever. You need different experiences, different leagues, different systems to grow your resume.”
At Delaware, Martelli will be working for Monté Ross, whom he played for at St. Joe’s during Ross’ 10 years as an assistant to Phil Martelli Sr.
“I’ll be working for someone I know well, someone who has certainly been a mentor to me in my coaching career,” Martelli said. “He made it very clear how much he wanted me there.”
Martelli also said he’s looking forward to joining an up-and-coming team in the Colonial Athletic Association, which has seen two members, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, advance to the Final Four in recent years.
“I’m really happy for him, but doggone it, it’s hard to see him go,” Mihalich said.
Martelli said leaving Mihalich was the most difficult aspect of his decision.
“He became someone I’m very close to and will remain very close to, not just as a boss, but as a person and a mentor,” Martelli said.
Mihalich said Martelli’s departure will not have any effect on the Purple Eagles’ incoming recruiting class. Assistant coaches Luke Dobrich and Kyle Neptune remain with the program, and Mihalich has begun the process of searching for Martelli’s replacement.
“His fingerprints are all over the program,” Mihalich said. “We were lucky to have him as long as we did.”
Changes on women’s staff
Niagara women’s basketball coach Kendra Faustin announced Monday the hiring of assistant coach Mark Katarski and director of basketball operations Brianna Lucas.
Katarski spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Division III Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Lucas played at Canisius College, graduating in 2009.
Assistant coaches Katie Murphy and Brittany Holterman, along with director of basketball operations Michelle Manfredi, “left the program for personal reasons on good terms,” according to a team spokesman.
Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2264.