St. Joe’s Basketball in Limbo: The Hawk Will Never Die?

A decade after its most thrilling season, can Phil Martelli's program rebound?

Nov 28, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Saint Joseph's Hawks mascot. The Hawk, during the second half against the LSU Tigers at ESPN Wide World of Sports. LSU Tigers defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 82-65. Photo | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You see them at St. Joe’s hoops games: old-guard fans who go by names like Owen, Ernie and Dr. Ed. Rich the CPA. The Twins. Hilf and T. They remember John Smith’s last-second game-winning layup against top-ranked DePaul in the 1981 NCAA tournament. The great ’85-’86 campaign, when Saint Joseph’s went 26-6. And, of course, Jameer Nelson and the magical 2003-’04 run to an undefeated regular season, a number-one ranking, and a trip to the Elite Eight.

St. Joe's Basketball

Photograph by David Ohl

A decade after that historic run, though, things on Hawk Hill have changed. The Hawks’ last NCAA tournament appearance came in 2008, and they haven’t won a tourney game in 10 years. SJU won just 11 games in 2009-’10 and again in 2010-’11. Last year’s team, picked first in the A-10, slid to eighth and watched La Salle and Temple enjoy NCAA tourney success. The glory-days crowd is grumbling, and the folks on Hawk Hill know it.

“Do you think the team and coaches aren’t as disappointed and frustrated as the fans?” St. Joe’s A.D. Don DiJulia asks rhetorically. “The players we have have to get better, and if we’re missing talent at a position, we have to attract the missing piece.”

St. Joe’s finds itself in a limbo of sorts, struggling to lure as many marquee recruits as it did in those old days, and not attractive enough to jump to a larger conference as the recent football-driven realignment frenzy in college sports winds down. The Hawks’ Atlantic 10 home was pillaged by rival conferences that poached four members last year, and it remains vulnerable to future losses of other schools. As a result, St. Joe’s confronts the challenge of staying relevant as bigger brand names attract more cash and national attention.

The only way St. Joe’s can do that is to win at basketball. The good news? Other schools like it — Gonzaga, Butler, VCU — have gained national status via hoops success. But SJU has to find a balance between its heritage and the realities of today.

“Internally, there’s a quaintness here still,” says coach Phil Martelli, who’s in his 19th year on the Hill. “It’s hard to maintain that spirit, because I do think there are voices that want more. They want the Big East. They want Jameer Nelson in uniform every year.”

It doesn’t help that archrival Villanova has joined its Catholic brethren in an exciting new basketball conference that’s bolstered by Fox TV cash. And while Temple’s new American Athletic Conference home isn’t perfect, its football component puts it ahead of the A-10.

Some Hawks fans are tired of waiting for their school to get it together. They complain about the lack of NCAA appearances and the disappointments of the past several seasons. Martelli, who has two more years on his contract and a solid ally in DiJulia, insists he doesn’t listen to the grousing: “I don’t feel it. I think that is the nature of the beast. Every day is a win or a loss.”

Still, in an attempt to tame that beast, the Hawks and Martelli have updated their images. The team is playing a more up-tempo offensive scheme. Next year’s freshman class will include highly touted recruit James Demery. And Martelli, 59, has new energy. Some in the SJU community think 2004’s success made the gregarious everyman aloof. This season, he appears to have returned to previous form. He smiles more and seems reinvigorated.

“It just can’t become a job,” he says. “I have great enjoyment managing the program. If you end up listening to the noise and reacting to the noise, it takes away from the joy of what you want to do.”

In today’s college sports world, joy isn’t enough. St. Joe’s has to win and hope its conference can stay strong, so those old-timers are joined by a robust 21st-century crowd.

This story originally ran in the January 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.