CLEMSON, S.C. — Well after the final out was recorded in Florida State’s riveting 13-inning, 3-2 win at Clemson, after the FSU players had surrounded Mike Martin and saluted him with a heartfelt round of applause, after countless congratulatory hugs were issued and countless photographs were taken to commemorate Martin’s brand-new status as the winningest coach in college baseball history — Martin greeted the awaiting media in a characteristically Mike Martin way.
“Appreciate y’all being here,” he said.
It was a typical expression of grace and humility and thoughtfulness from a man who literally doffs his cap and thanks the assembled media and the city of Omaha and the fans of college baseball at the end of any College World Series press conference that ends his team’s season. I’ve witnessed that scene in Omaha four times over the last decade, and it never fails to move me, because Martin means every word from the bottom of his heart. He’s eternally grateful for the opportunity to spend his life leading young men, teaching them how to become better baseball players, but far more importantly, to become better citizens, better human beings. He’s eternally grateful for anyone who cares about or promotes the game he loves. And he never fails to divert the spotlight away from himself, and onto his players.
For nearly 40 years, one name has been synonymous with Florida State Baseball. He is a leader of men, a true ambassador to his beloved alma mater, and now the winningest coach in NCAA Baseball history.— FSU Baseball (@FSUBaseball) May 6, 2018
Congratulations 11. pic.twitter.com/E3xYVO7EYi
As Martin talked with the assembled reporters Saturday night, he fiddled with a baseball in his left hand. It was the ball that Clemson’s Kyle Wilkie had lined to right field for the final out of Saturday’s game, giving Martin the 1,976th win of his illustrious career, passing Augie Garrido for first place on the all-time wins list.
“This (baseball) makes me think of the first one, because I was given a baseball by one of our players at the University of Miami in 1980, and if I looked hard enough I could still find it, it was James Ramsey’s daddy,” Martin said. “And this one was given to me by one of the players. And I’ll tell you guys, what the players did, you have no idea —” Martin paused, looked to the sky, and exhaled an emotional breath — “what that means to me, for those guys to show appreciation. I’m not in this to so-called be loved. I’m in this to teach. And sometimes it is tough love. But to have them there, that was neat, the way they treated me at the end. That was neat.”
Martin’s not in this racket to so-called be loved, but he is fiercely loved by a great many Florida State players who have learned from him over the last 39 years, and a great many Florida State fans. And he should be loved and appreciated by anyone who cares about college baseball, because he represents everything that is good about our game. He carries himself with dignity and unfailing good humor — I’ll never forget the time I called his cell phone while he was driving his car, listening to the Bee Gees, and he treated me to a little Barry Gibbs impression, in his scratchy North Carolina drawl. I’ll never forget watching him walk through the lobby of the Hilton Omaha after a CWS game and get stopped by a young boy asking for an autograph, then drop his bag and sit down on the couch to scrawl a long message on the baseball he was handed, then engage the youngster in jovial conversation. He’s unfailingly folksy and impossibly charming, but he’s also as genuine as anybody you’ll ever meet. What you see from Mike Martin really is what you get.
So when Martin talks about the “Florida State Family,” he means it. That family means far more to him than any individual record ever could.
“I said this on the TV — and I mean this, guys — and if it sounds corny to you, I don’t care: It’s about a family. We are Florida State family,” he said. “We try to keep up with each other. I haven’t found out how beach volleyball did, I know they — they won? Fantastic. I knew that they had gotten to another step. But it’s just exciting for me as a Seminole to see other people interested in what’s going on with the baseball team.”
Which isn’t to say the all-time college baseball wins record means nothing to Martin, of course. I believe him when he says he’s just glad the chase is over, as he said to FSU Director of Athletics Stan Wilcox during a postgame hug. He wants to focus on his baseball team, and winning the next game. That’s legitimate. But the weight of history isn’t lost on him.
“Well, for me to say it doesn’t mean anything is certainly a bunch of bull,” Martin said. “But the record means that, for a while, I don’t know when it will be broken, but for a while it’s gonna have Florida State’s name, the first two words are gonna be Florida State. That’s what means so much to me, because that’s the university that gave me a chance to coach. I’m very fortunate, I love my university, I have every opportunity through our administration to be successful, they give me every opportunity to be successful.”
And, oh, how successful he’s been. Augie Garrido will probably go down as the greatest coach of all time — it’s hard to argue with those five national titles — but it’s astounding that Martin passed Garrido’s career win total in just his 39th season. It took Garrido 48 years to win 1,975 games.
In his first 38 years as Florida State’s head coach, Martin has won 40-plus games every single year. He’s won 50-plus games 24 times. He’s been to the College World Series 16 times. In the 20 years of the 64-team NCAA tournament era, Martin has been to 16 super regionals. So even if you set aside Martin’s grace and kindness and commitment to teaching — the essence of his person — the numbers alone are staggering.
“It is amazing,” said his son Mike Martin Jr., a longtime assistant coach for the Seminoles. “A lot of times when you do it for a long time and you do it well, you take it for granted. And that man should not be taken for granted.”
Truer words have never been spoken.Martin is still searching for his first national title — that’s the one blemish in his incredible body of work, and the one thing that his smug critics cling to and disgracefully relish whenever Florida State’s season comes to a close without a CWS championship. But whether or not he ever wins it all, his legacy is secure. He’s one of the giants of college baseball history, and one of the finest gentlemen ever to patrol a dugout.
“I think Mike Martin will go down in history as one of the greatest coaches in all of college baseball. He certainly will have more wins than anybody else,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said after his Tigers eliminated FSU from the 2017 CWS. “And I just think way, way too much is being played about him not getting to win the final game in Omaha. It’s really a shame. Was it Marv Levy or some of these other great coaches that never won it at all? Does that diminish their career? Does that keep them from being talked about as great coaches of all time? I wish it wouldn’t, because what he’s done in his career at Florida State is very rare.
“How many years in a row has he been to the NCAA tournament? How many years does he have? Close to 40. Are you kidding me? This guy, year in, year out has had one of the best teams in the country. He’s done it with class. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like Mike Martin. I certainly think the world of him. He’s a great person, a great coach. And he’s impacted a lot of young people’s lives. And whether he ever wins the last game in Omaha or not should never diminish his legacy one iota as far as I’m concerned.”
But Saturday night — Mike Martin’s night — the man they call “11” wasn’t interested in talking about his legacy. He said he wants to see if he can pick up a bunch more keepsake baseballs before he’s done coaching. He wants to win tomorrow, against Clemson, to help his club secure another home regional and compete for a national seed. When he addressed his players after the game, he talked about how proud he was of them for grinding out a tough win on the road, and how much the next game will mean.
“I told them how much I appreciated their fight, their grit, their determination. I told them how important the win was, but tomorrow’s game is even more important because of course we know how good this (Clemson) club is,” Martin said. “They were happy to be a part of this moment, because heck, some of them — well, one for an example, (Rafael) Bournigal’s daddy played for me back in the late 80s. But it was really just a night that I’ll always remember because of the way our young men battled.”
Martin looked at the reporters gathered around him, waited a few moments for additional questions, saw that none were forthcoming. Then he said, “And thank y’all very much for being here.”