Hard times on Hawk Hill
There is a tradition at Saint Joseph's for fans to cheer ''The Hawk Will Never Die!''
They need to believe in that defiant slogan more than ever this season, because hard times, indeed, have hit Hawk Hill.
Jameer Nelson and Delonte West once ruled Saint Joseph's, where fans and scouts flocked to watch the Hawks romp their way toward a No. 1 national ranking and stamp themselves as the dominant darlings of college basketball.
Now, seven years after Nelson and West left for the NBA, the record has never been worse under coach Phil Martelli. And the only thing Saint Joseph's is known for these days is landing at the bottom of the Atlantic 10.
''I know it's an unfortunate situation for them,'' Nelson said.
The next Nelson never came. The next West went somewhere else.
The duo not only represented Martelli's greatest success, they've cast a shadow larger than the campus at the private Jesuit school, a shadow the Hawks have yet to escape.
St. Joseph's opened the 2003-04 season with 27 straight wins, reached No. 1 in the AP poll, was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time and made its first trip to a regional final since 1981.
This season's Hawks, though, are 5-16 overall, 0-7 in the A-10, and have lost eight straight games - one fewer than the 2002-04 seasons combined. This comes after an 11-20 record last year and a 17-15 mark (with no postseason play) in 2008-09.
''I know Coach is a great coach, and it's just unfortunate that we didn't capitalize in terms of the season that we had,'' Nelson said. ''I just don't know what it is.''
For those close to the program, the answer is multilayered, yet simple.
Unlike Nelson's hailed decision to play all four years, West and forward Dwayne Jones wouldn't last until their senior seasons. They declared early for the NBA draft in successive years, costing the Hawks at least two more NCAA tournaments.
Like Nelson noted, the three- and four-star recruits were not motivated enough by Martelli churning out NBA prospects to take their chances in Philadelphia. They, for the most part, didn't want to play in a program so far removed from Duke or Connecticut.
''What really happened is, they got involved with a higher level recruit because of the Jameer bump, but didn't finish,'' said Joe Lunardi, chief marketing officer for Saint Joseph's and the Hawks' radio announcer.
Martelli hoped he struck gold again in Chester, Pa., having plucked guards Jawan Carter and Darrin Govens from the same town that produced Nelson, now with the Orlando Magic.
Govens and Carter were part of a highly decorated, five-player freshman class in 2006 that had Martelli enthusiastic. Instead of becoming the next generation of Hawks' stars, though, they morphed into just another class that helped the program spiral toward mediocrity.
Temple coach Fran Dunphy and the A-10 rival Owls then started winning the recruiting battles for local players like Lavoy Allen, and soared to the top of the standings.
''It's recruiting outcomes,'' Martelli said, ''not mistakes.''
Sitting on a folding chair in the corner of a cramped Palestra locker room, Martelli scanned his forlorn assistants after a 72-54 loss to the Owls on Saturday, and lamented they can no longer sell the program based on Nelson's glory era.
''It's hard for these guys to get really juiced in recruiting because you carry around a tattoo of (5-16),'' Martelli said. ''That's a hard thing to walk in and get on the phone and juice a kid. One of our things is, the Hagan Arena is a great place to play, but this year you can't bring a kid to a game because, understandably, the crowds are light and the juice is not there.''
The proper name is the Michael J. Hagan '85 Arena, renamed for the former SJU student and current benefactor whose $10 million donation led an expansion and renovation of the outdated fieldhouse. Nelson and West chipped in, too.
Look around the landscape of all college sports and big-dollar donors are calling the shots. Last month, a major benefactor to the University of Connecticut asked the school to return $3 million in donations and remove his family name from its football complex because he says he was shut out of discussions about the selection of a new football coach.
Hagan insisted he has no say - nor does he want one - in the direction of the basketball program.
Like any SJU fan, Hagan is disappointed with how the program has tumbled from the top of the sport. But he's a staunch Martelli supporter and won't exert his considerable financial clout to ask athletic director Don DiJulia for a change.
''When he had talent around him, he almost got us to the Final Four,'' said Hagan, enjoying Saturday's game from his courtside seat. ''Phil knows what he needs to do to get that team back in the situation he was seven years ago. He'll get us back there.''
Hard to imagine Final Fours when Temple students are delightfully chanting ''You are awful!'' at the beaten Hawks. St. Joseph's, in fact, went 0 for 8 in January and lost three straight games to city schools.
''He's going to have to get some recruits,'' Nelson said after a game last week at Indiana. ''Let's get it correct. Talent along with coaching is going to win you games. We had a lot of talent. He'll be the first to tell you that we made his job easy because we had a lot of talent.''
Martelli's job is anything but easy these days and, even for a casual observer, the losing is taking a toll. Martelli always dismissed or deflected criticism and poor performances with humor. But the quips come as rarely as the victories these days.
The mostly anonymous Internet message board criticism of his coaching has grown bolder with every key stroke. Martelli points out piles of letters on his desk in support to prove most SJU backers still believe in him.
DiJulia laughed at a question about Martelli potentially being on the hot seat and said the coach has the full support of Saint Joseph's administration. Martelli, who showed tremendous loyalty sticking with the program when he was the hottest coach in the nation, is signed through 2015-16.
Not all losses are bad ones: Martelli has shed almost 45 pounds since starting his weight-loss program April 1, 2009.
He still hosts his lighthearted ''HawkTalk'' TV show, with Lunardi serving as the Andy Richter sidekick, but gone are the steady stream of public appearances that made him a media darling earlier in his career. He's ditching Wing Bowl this week, has turned down public speaking requests and cut back on extracurricular activities.
''This takes up all my time,'' he said. ''All my waking hours is making sure I can watch another half a game. Or maybe I can get another session academically with the players.''
He has talent on board. Forward C.J. Aiken is second in the nation in blocked shots and leading scorer Carl Jones has eight games of 20-plus points. Hope is on the way next year in point guard Chris Wilson from North Carolina.
''If Jameer Nelson was 6-4, he wouldn't have come to Saint Joe's,'' Lunardi said. ''When Saint Joe's has been excellent, it's by getting raw talent and molding it. Phil has been very good at doing that. For the first time in a while, it can be argued the pieces are here again.''
Until the pieces fit together, rebuilding will be painful. Martelli has led the Hawks to five NCAA tournaments (three with Nelson) and four NITs in 16 seasons on Hawk Hill. The Hawks haven't made the NCAA tourney since 2007-08 and Martelli is 33-51 since '08 entering Wednesday's game at Richmond.
But for the critics who believe Martelli's best days are behind him, he's made a promise to the doubters.
''I will tell you one thing,'' Martelli said. ''Vengeance will be sweet.''
AP freelance writer Jim Johnson in Indianapolis contributed to this report.