Despite the backlash, Martinez dug in at Georgia

March, 20, 2009
3/20/09
6:42
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

ATHENS, Ga. -- Hell hath no fury like an SEC fanbase determined to run a coach out of town.

The popular target last season at Georgia was defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, and the backlash against him was downright nasty at times.

That's what happens in these parts when you start a season ranked No. 1 in the country and then proceed to lose three of the biggest games you play all year -- giving up 41 or more points in all three games.

"Nobody was more disappointed than myself in how we played defensively last year," Martinez said. "I take full responsibility. But (the criticism) is part of the business. You don't try to pay too much attention to the things you can't control. You try and control the things you can and do the best you can. I know I can do a better job."

Georgia coach Mark Richt was steadfast in his support of Martinez. They go back to their playing days at Miami, although Richt was a couple of years ahead of Martinez in school. When Richt got the head job at Georgia, Martinez came with him from Central Michigan as secondary coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2005 after Brian VanGorder left.

"He's a couple years older than I am, but I look older and have less hair," joked Martinez, sporting the Curly Neal look.

Nothing was funny about last season on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs were ravaged by injuries, tackled poorly most of the season and allowed 38 or more points in four of their last five regular-season games.

The low point came in the regular-season finale. Georgia Tech shredded Georgia for 409 rushing yards in a 45-42 win at Sanford Stadium, snapping the Bulldogs' seven-game winning streak in the series.

The calls for Richt to fire Martinez at that point were deafening, but Richt would hear none of it.

"I know he's an outstanding coach and an outstanding man," Richt said. "Statistically, we didn't play as well as we have in the past, and there were some games that got away from us defensively. That hasn't happened a lot around here, but you just can't discount the impact all the injuries had on our defense.

"It wasn't just the injuries, either. We had to change the way we prepared to keep from losing another guy, and that knocked the edge off our defense. We didn't tackle. We didn't practice tackling. We didn't tackle to the ground, and we didn't scrimmage as much as we usually scrimmage.

"When you don't do that, it's hard to just turn it on during the games."

Martinez had his chance to bolt even if Richt wasn't holding the door open for him. He was offered the defensive coordinator's job at Miami this past January after Bill Young left to go to Oklahoma State.

The lure to return to his alma mater was strong, but it didn't outweigh his loyalty to Richt, his love for the Georgia community or the fact that he simply couldn't bring himself to walk away on the heels of such an unfulfilling season.

"This is a great place and a great program," Martinez said. "It's been a huge blessing to my family, what we've been able to accomplish here. I felt like we could do a lot better. It just wasn't the right time."

A cursory glance at the Bulldogs' defensive numbers from last season doesn't look nearly as bad as one might think when you consider the degree of venom hurled Martinez's way. They slipped to 59th nationally in scoring defense, but were a respectable 22nd in total defense.

And that's after Georgia finished in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total defense all three seasons from 2005 to 2007.

It's the way the Bulldogs lost, though, and the way they were carved apart against the best teams on their schedule that was so painful to watch.

Even some of the wins were difficult to enjoy, particularly the 52-38 track meet at LSU.

"It's hard to satisfy a defensive coach, and I'm as hard as anybody to satisfy," Martinez said. "We want to win. That's our number one goal, but we definitely don't want to win by one point and have 40-some points hung on you. That's not the way we want to win."

He's still hesitant to talk too much about the injuries last season. He doesn't want to use them as an excuse.

But he peers over to the depth chart on the big board in his office, a depth chart littered with guys recovering from surgery, and does his best to be philosophical.

"Defense is emotion, playing hard, being physical and setting the tempo, and we were unable to do that last year," said Martinez, noting how much the Bulldogs had to scale back practice.

"But, hey, we all still have a bad taste in our mouths. Regardless of the situation, it doesn't really matter if it's injuries. Good defense has always been a tradition around here, and tradition never graduates.

"It's, 'Next man up and let's go.' Who cares if the other guy is gone?"

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?