Living the dream

As a boy, Chuck Martin used to imagine that he and Ara Parseghian were leading the Irish out onto the field. George Long/WireImage/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Chuck Martin was a dual-threat football player at the University of Notre Dame in the 1970s, slicing the crisp autumn air with game-winning touchdown passes and shooting down the sideline from out of the backfield as the student section erupted.

He and coach Ara Parseghian would lead the team out onto the field, but Martin was the one hauled out of the stadium on the shoulders of his teammates. No exceptions. And with seemingly limitless eligibility, Martin won countless NCAA championships for basketball coach Digger Phelps -- all on seeing-eye buzzer-beaters -- in a career that lasted nearly a decade.

He was an Irish legend, if only in the backyard fantasies of his childhood.

In reality, Martin, who was introduced Friday along with the rest of football coach Brian Kelly's finalized staff, was just a suburban Catholic kid in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest spellbound by the Golden Dome and all it symbolized.

"Me and my older brother, from the time we knew what the world was, I was Adrian Dantley in the backyard shooting hoops. I was every Notre Dame quarterback and running back; I pretended to be them all."

The Rich East High School product never went to Notre Dame. Martin didn't cut down any nets. No touchdown passes. But he did enjoy a nice career at Millikin University as an All-American safety -- a far cry from the hallowed house that Rockne built.

Martin, who served as Kelly's defensive coordinator at Division II Grand Valley State from 2000 to 2003, stayed in Allendale, Mich., despite an open invitation to join Kelly at Central Michigan in 2004. He again turned Kelly down once Cincinnati came calling, explaining that leading the Lakers as Kelly's successor would be far more beneficial in his quest to become a Division I head coach than taking another assistant position.

Plans change.

"I thought this was the greatest place on the planet," said Martin, who sat at a table perched high above the basketball court Friday at Purcell Pavilion, ceaselessly tapping his legs and making no effort to dim his 1,000-watt smile. "When they broke out the green jerseys and were putting it on USC, we were out in the backyard pretending we had green jerseys putting it on USC.

"The decision to come to Notre Dame? Not a very difficult decision."

Martin, charged with shaping the Irish defensive backs -- a unit that performed miserably at times last season -- not only maintained GVSU's winning tradition but added two more national titles (2005 and 2006) and came up just short in the championship this past season.

"He won a whole lot more games than I did," Kelly said.

At least in the same amount of time.

Martin won 74 of 81 games in six seasons, and his .914 winning percentage was second best among active college coaches, regardless of division. Kelly pocketed 118 wins in 13 seasons. Kelly's wide-open offenses put GVSU on the map, but Martin's defensive acumen ensured the Lakers' place at the top of the Division II heap.

With Kelly bringing in most of his staff from Cincinnati, including offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Mike Elston (defensive line) and Tim Hinton (running backs), Martin essentially took a demotion in terms of responsibility.

Irish fans should be elated he did. With that same Kelly swagger, Martin is a fiery addition to a staff that has Notre Dame Nation giddy about 2010 and beyond. He's emotional -- downright berserk on the sideline at times -- and an energetic motivator who will pull top talent out of Chicago as the program's main recruiter in that region.

It's no surprise; he learned from the best.

"[Kelly's] the most confident person I've ever met on this planet and probably ever will meet on this planet," Martin said. "That's what I loved the first time I coached for him."

It's what many folks find so inspiring as Notre Dame football transitions from the fruitless Charlie Weis era.

"I'm interested in winners," Kelly said.

Both in real life and in his adolescent imagination, that's exactly what Martin has always been.