Dec. 31, 2008
by Joe Greenwich
As the holiday season wraps up and the calendar turns to 2009, Philadelphians can look forward to an annual tradition that marks the beginning of every new year. It's not the Mummer's Parade. It's not the Eagles making a playoff run, or even the start of the Atlantic 10 conference season.
Of course, it's the return of Phil Martelli's HawkTalk, back in 2009 for its 13th season.
HawkTalk, once named the best coach's show in the nation by The Sporting News, has taken on a life of its own over the past decade-plus that it has been on the air. Martelli hosts each episode in a talk show format alongside co-host and Saint Joseph's radio analyst Joe Lunardi. Martelli has welcomed a litany of guests over the years, from Mitch Williams and Jon Runyan to Big 5 basketball coaches Fran Dunphy and Jay Wright and even his wife, Judy.
By most official estimates, HawkTalk will air its 100th episode in 2009. The most irreverent coach's show in America has come a long way since its first episodes. One thing that hasn't changed is the informal nature of the program.
"In my second year Ken Krsolovic, who was the sports information director at the time, came and said he had money for radio and a TV spot and asked if I was interested," related Martelli. "I said yes, I was interested, but I didn't want to do it like a normal coach's show because I think they are bad television and very, very boring."
There are a number of different ways that the creators of the new show could have approached the task at hand. Despite that, one thing was for certain: the focus of HawkTalk would not be on basketball.
"The people that are watching the shows are fans of the team. They know everything about the team," Martelli pointed out. "So to talk about a weight training session...I just didn't see that as being of any value. My feeling was, if we could do it like a talk show, if we could do it like bad television, then we would be all right."
And that they were, filming the first episodes of the show in a small public access studio in the nearby Roxborough section of Philadelphia.
"We had started the Saint Joseph's Sports Network (SJSN) about six or seven years earlier," Krsolovic remembered. "We were doing telecasts on SportsChannel and Channel 35 before the Atlantic 10 passed a rule saying that they didn't want schools producing their own games. We had already sold advertising space for the upcoming (1996-97) season, and I had talked to Phil before about doing a television show, so that was the time to do it."
One of the keys to the show would be bringing out Martelli's personality.
"He teases everybody," Krsolovic said. "From the bus driver to [administrative assistant] Clare Ariano to the team managers, he's always teasing." Krsolovic needed to find a host that would bring out this side of the coach. One night, while driving home, he had a realization.
"I wondered, `who could I get that's funny?' Then I realized...he's the funny one. He should host the show," he said. "I called him up and I said, `you're going to curse at me, but you're going to host the show.'"
"The first day we showed up, we were kind of winging it," Martelli said. "Even today, we're kind of just piecing it together as opposed to plotting things out. People think that there's any kind of planning...there's not. It's like, `in the next segment, this is what we're going to do. Okay, great.'"
The most memorable (if not the only) scripted bit from the early days of the show was "Martelli the Magnificent." In a parody of Johnny Carson's "Carnac" character, Martelli donned the costume of a clairvoyant, giving answers to the audience before revealing a question sealed in an envelope. The most well-known visit from the soothsayer referred to Arizona head coach Lute Olson's cancellation of a game between the Hawks and Wildcats, ostensibly because of a snowstorm that had blanketed the Philadelphia region with snow in the week leading up to the contest.
"A Japanese pitcher, a mistake, and Lute Olson" was the answer Martelli gave before ripping up the envelope to reveal the question: "Name a Nomo, a no-no, and a no-show."
What started in that small studio in Roxborough has snowballed into a national phenomenon, in part because of "Martelli the Magnificent." After The Sporting News called HawkTalk the best coach's show in the nation in 2001, people across the country began to take notice, and for the past four seasons, a national audience has been able to see HawkTalk on CBS College Sports (formerly known as CSTV).
"I think what happened was CSTV came on board with the Atlantic 10 and our show happened to be there and it had a level of notoriety because there had been some success and everybody kept saying, `I want to see it,'" Martelli explained. "A lot of people, I would venture a guess, haven't seen a lot of it, if they've seen it at all. Word of mouth is, it's so different, and hopefully in some ways it gets you to laugh, because I don't know that a lot of those shows make you laugh."
All the on-air hijinks are fine and dandy so long as the team has success on the court. Fortunately, the Hawks have been one of the nation's most consistent programs, garnering nine postseason invitations in Martelli's 13 years at the helm as well as 10 winning seasons, including the past eight in a row.
"There's no doubt about it," Martelli said. "The results on the court have allowed HawkTalk to remain HawkTalk. I think on-court success makes it easier to do the show and it makes it easier, probably, for people to accept the show."
The players that have contributed to that success, however, are probably not a part of the show's core audience.
"I don't think the players even know that I have a show," Martelli laughed. "The only time they're ever on is the last show of their senior year. I don't think it registers in their world."
In addition to his gig as a television host, Martelli has a weekly hour-long radio version of HawkTalk that he also hosts with Lunardi. While the tone of the radio program is more basketball-related than that of the television show, the coach has still managed to keep things light.
"Our radio shows are different [than the shows hosted by other coaches]," he said. "I listen to other radio shows if I'm riding around and you can hear that there's an edge and a lot of it is based on winning and losing."
That's another way that HawkTalk is far from the norm.
"It's ironic because on our radio show, if we're losing, no one calls."
A number of those other coaches that Martelli tunes in to hear, including Villanova's Jay Wright and Fran Dunphy, formerly of Penn and currently the head coach at Temple, have appeared on HawkTalk. Martelli's rivals in the coaching profession are often intrigued by the format of the SJU head man's show, and some might wish they could emulate it themselves.
"Even to this day, what would be labeled as big, big-time coaches want to come on the show because I don't think they believe that it's going to be kind of off-the-cuff and not as reverent as some of the other shows," Martelli speculated. "I think that if you really put their feet to the fire and asked `would [they] like to do [their own shows] this way?' I think they would."
Over the past dozen years of HawkTalk, there have been some memorable moments that are indelibly etched into the minds of the Saint Joseph's fanbase. The host fondly remembers one episode in particular.
"Having Jack Ramsay and Jameer Nelson on the same show, the greatest coach and the greatest player [in Saint Joseph's history]" stood out to Martelli.
Family has always been an important part of HawkTalk, and in multiple instances the hosts have had family members on the program. Some were planned, but some were not.
During one episode, Lunardi's young daughters were on set during a taping and clearly were not content with just watching from the sidelines.
"Joe's girls were real young and they wanted to see their dad. They didn't get the idea that it was a television show," Martelli remembered. "They just thought it was people talking, so they walked out. People wanted to cut, and I said `nah, let's just keep going.'"
Martelli has had his own daughter, Elizabeth, on the show as well as his wife, Judy.
"I brought my daughter one time when she was sick. She was a young kid and she was home sick from school," he said. "I had to go do the show, so she sat in. My wife's segments have always been reluctantly accepted [by Judy]," he added.
Judy Martelli appears annually on the show for a birthday celebration. For her 50th birthday, her husband presented her with a special present: a walker. Judy was not amused.
"Yeah, that didn't go over real well."
And even though HawkTalk is not basketball-centric, Martelli has used the program to try and help change the team's on-court fortunes in the past. After the Hawks ended a long losing streak, Martelli began the show by emerging from a coffin. Another time, the coach used an unorthodox method of putting together a television show.
"We did the show backwards," Martelli recalled. "We wanted to turn the streak around."
But did it work? The answer to this key question is lost on Martelli.
"I don't remember," he chuckled. "I don't have any idea."
One thing Martelli does know is that HawkTalk represents more than just fun and games for the people who put the show together.
"In one way the show is truly the spirit of Saint Joseph's University," he remarked. "[Director of Athletic Communications] Marie Wozniak isn't getting extra pay to do HawkTalk, Joe Lunardi's not getting it, I'm not getting it. It's the people that come on, Clare Ariano, when she does her segments...it's all so tongue-in-cheek, but it is also St. Joe's."
"There's been thought to saying, `you know, why don't we give them a whole year of real coach's shows?' and see how people would react to that," he added. "But I'm not ready to do that. I think people would enjoy it. I think people would enjoy, for lack of a better word, a classier version of HawkTalk. It's `Wayne's World'-type stuff, and at a point you run out of it."
As another famous talk show host, Jay Leno, prepares to hand over the reigns of The Tonight Show, Phil Martelli has no designs on ending HawkTalk anytime soon.
"Oh, I would never do that," Martelli reassured his audience. "It's a formula that's worked, and people do anticipate it. People ask me about it a lot, `when's that show starting?'
"We'll keep going."