Going to the Mat
Feb. 16, 2005
About 30 minutes before the newspaper reporter entered Steve Martin's office, a high school wrestler had walked out.
"You just missed him," Martin, Old Dominion University's first-year coach, said.
"I didn't ask the kid to come down," said Martin. "He did that on his own. He's recruiting me."
Tell the Ohio flash to take a number. High school wrestlers are starting to line up for the opportunity to compete for ODU, and, more to the point, to be trained and psychologically reconditioned by Martin, whose teams at Great Bridge High won 12 state titles in 13 years.
Under the baby son of the legendary Billy Martin, ODU's recruiting has headed off in new directions, with four "blue-chippers" and four early signings this year.
"That's never happened at Old Dominion before," noted Martin, who says he's just getting started. "There are going to be kids who are going to shock people when they sign with us next year," he said. "And they're not Great Bridge kids. We're going to nail some."
The words pour out like steam from a safety valve. Martin is, as usual, stoked. He's sitting on the edge of a sofa one second, bouncing on his toes the next. At 5-foot-4, he's a bantam rooster who can't wait for the sun to rise on a new day.
"I like people to tell me that it can't be done," Martin tells his visitor. "Our goal is to be a national powerhouse. We want to be top five, top 10. And to produce individual All-Americans."
So the recruiting continues. And not just for wrestlers. If you weren't aware that ODU is refurbishing its wrestling program, or that it even fielded a team, you're not alone. A combination of financial considerations and Title IX requirements has led to a de-emphasis of the sport nationwide. ODU is bucking a trend that has resulted in Division I wrestling being whittled from more than 150 teams in 1980 to only 85 today.
Which begs the question: Why leave the security of a high school dynasty for the relative obscurity of a middling college program?
"There was a little boredom involved," Martin said. "It got to the point that winning a state title every year wasn't very exciting. It was a comfort zone. A lot of people think about comfort zones."
But Martin envisions things that seem improbable for the Monarchs. A former All-American at Iowa, he wrestled for the great Dan Gable before zealous crowds in the Midwest, where wrestling remains relevant. He wants to bring that atmosphere to ODU, but for the time being, matches could be held in a phone booth.
Said the 38-year-old college rookie: "I was told several times this season, 'Martin, you're going to have five people at your matches.' I said, no we aren't. We'll have 500 in the stands. And then I got on the phone and started making calls. I've called up probably a thousand people this year."
To reach friends, associates and media, he also relies on e-mail. His promos are about as subtle as a headlock: "Come to the match on Sunday. We need to pack the stands."
Then, on match days, he has a friend individually count the bodies in the bleachers, hoping to hit the 500 mark, which has happened only twice. Still, that's what passes for a bustling turnout at ODU, which is a decade removed from its last conference championship.
Martin cites one big difference between Great Bridge and ODU: "I have to reach out and promote the program," he said. "In this job, you're a P.R. man, too."
There were many times when better public relations could have helped Martin's image at Great Bridge, where he was known for producing champions, and rubbing people the wrong way.
Wrestling naturally attracts fractious, pugnacious personalities, but Martin won a lot more matches than friends.
"People sometimes misinterpret my focus for, uh, . . .," he said, letting his words trail off, as if he's heard the complaints too many times.
As if he could really ever change.
"Maybe some people come to see us get beat, because they don't like me," he said. "I could care less, as long as they come."
With one more dual match to go, ODU has 11 victories, four more than last season.
"We're basically winning on conditioning and better technique," Martin said.
Not surprisingly, his demanding regimen was a shock to the systems of ODU's returning wrestlers.
"I knew some of the kids would have trouble dealing with his intensity in the workout room," said junior 184-pounder Adam Wright. "He's always on you. But we're twice as better conditioned than last year."
Martin is a big believer in his own ability to "psychologically manipulate athletes," the way he manipulated kids at Great Bridge, the way he was manipulated at Iowa by Gable.
But Martin doesn't stop there. He's just cocky enough to believe that he can actually recondition the people of Hampton Roads, to create an audience for college wrestling.
This is tantamount to expecting his 133-pounder to pin King Kong. It can't be done. But, then, Martin loves hearing that.
He wants to hear people say that ODU can't reach the top five. He wants to hear them say that a famous school like Iowa would never agree to come to town. Or that it's impossible that an ODU match would ever be staged at a packed Ted Constant Center.
That's his goal, you know. To hold some matches under the big top. Because if that day ever arrives, the tables would be turned. It would be as if 8,000 ticket buyers were recruiting him.
Do you really think, he was asked, that you can sell out the Constant Center for wrestling?
Steve Martin was up off the sofa now, bouncing on his toes. "Damn right."