The feel-good story of the 2017 college football season has its roots at the University of Kentucky.
Inspired by Jerry Claiborne, former UK quarterback Doug Martin has spent his college head coaching career trying to rebuild epically football-challenged programs. On Saturday, Martin, 54, got a magical payoff on his long years of labor.
That changed when Martin’s Aggies scored a touchdown with 32 seconds left Saturday to beat South Alabama 22-17. The win earned NMSU (6-6) a berth opposite Utah State (6-6) in the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl Dec. 29. It will be New Mexico State’s first postseason appearance since the 1960 Sun Bowl.
Never miss a local story.
If you caught ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Saturday night, you saw video of an emotional post-game interview with Martin, his voice cracking and battling to hold back tears.
“Where my emotion came from, it was because of our seniors,” Martin said Tuesday. “This senior class is the first group of kids I recruited here. We didn’t have any facilities. We had no tradition. We had literally nothing here when we recruited those kids. We just sold them on a vision, that they would be the group to change the culture. And they did it.”
As a player, Martin was recruited by Fran Curci to Kentucky after quarterbacking Oak Ridge High School to a pair of Tennessee state championships.
Yet Martin spent most of his UK career playing under Curci’s UK successor, Claiborne. Martin started four games at quarterback for UK during Claiborne’s winless first season (0-10-1) as Wildcats’ head coach in 1982.
Having already rebuilt programs at Virginia Tech and Maryland, Claiborne — who died in 2000 at age 72 — overcame that barren first year at Kentucky and went on to have three winning seasons and take UK to two bowl games in his eight years (1982-89) as Wildcats coach.
“The thing that always attracted me (to coaching) was being a guy who could build a program,” Martin says. “Playing for Coach Claiborne there at Kentucky, he built three (programs). And I guess that’s kind of where I’ve gotten that mentality from.”
Martin’s first head coaching stint (2004-10) came at Kent State. The Golden Flashes had gone 30-136-1 in the 15 seasons before Martin’s arrival. So Martin producing a 6-6 year and three five-win seasons in seven years at Kent represented program enhancement.
When Martin took the New Mexico State head coaching job before the 2013 season, the Aggies had gone 53-126 over their prior 15 seasons.
David Elson, the former Western Kentucky head coach, spent two years (2012 and ’13) in Las Cruces, N.M. as an assistant at NMSU.
“I think it’s the toughest coaching job in (FBS) football,” Elson said of New Mexico State. “One of the things that makes it tough, there’s no easy way to get to Las Cruces. At Western, we were right off I-65, and we could get recruits to stop in and go to camp while they were going to Vanderbilt (in Nashville), to Louisville, to (other) places along the interstate. At New Mexico State, that doesn’t exist.”
As head coach, Martin made a big change in the recruiting philosophy at NMSU.
“New Mexico State had always recruited real heavily in the junior colleges and a lot in California,” Martin said. “When I came in here, I really felt you had to go back into high school recruiting and get players who were going to be here for four and five years and develop them. Then, we picked Texas and Arizona geographically as our primary recruiting areas.”
That approach is the dead opposite of a quick fix — and Martin went 2-10, 2-10, 3-9 and 3-9 in his first four seasons as NMSU head coach.
“It’s hard. Losing is hard,” Martin said. “I knew this was going to take years. The best thing I had going for me was our Athletics Director, Mario Moccia. He gave us the time.”
Now, Martin has New Mexico State bowl-bound even though the school’s football program does not fund a full coaching staff. “I coach the quarterbacks and coordinate the offense because I don’t have enough money to pay an offensive coordinator,” Martin said.
Next season, NMSU will become a football independent, its pigskin-only affiliation with the Sun Belt Conference ending after this year.
“To do what (Martin has) done there, people have no idea,” says Elson, now the defensive coordinator at Ball State. “If people really understood the challenges he’s overcome, Doug Martin would be National Coach of the Year.”
During the season in which he ended the nation’s longest bowl drought, Martin says he often thought about the coach at UK who inspired him to take on the challenge of epic rebuilds.
“I think Coach Claiborne would really be proud of what we have done here,” Doug Martin says.