From juco All-American at Wingate to winningest head coach in NCAA history
by Chuck Gordon

Mike Martin had an outstanding athletics career at Wingate Junior College. But it was nothing compared with the records he would set as head baseball coach at Florida State.

Before he was the head baseball coach at powerhouse Florida State University for four decades, setting records that will probably never be broken, Mike Martin played basketball at Wingate Junior College.

Martin was an athlete. He became a fleet-footed junior-college All-American in baseball, later starting in centerfield for Florida State and playing three years of minor-league ball – all of which tells you something about how his basketball career ended up. But although he was a baseball standout, it was on the basketball court where Martin was able to most easily demonstrate the competitive fire that drove him to a record-breaking career in sports.

Mike Martin smiling, wearing Wingate jersey

A self-proclaimed gunner who never met a shot he didn’t like, Martin bolted out of the gates. He earned a starting spot on Wingate head coach Bill Connell’s team after a few practices, and in his first game, in November of 1962, Martin scored 21 points in a win over Louisburg. He often deferred to the sophomores the rest of his freshman season, but by his sophomore year he was the first option.

Early in that sophomore season, in December of 1963, the Davidson College freshman team visited Sanders-Sikes Gymnasium. The Wildcats’ varsity squad was a budding national powerhouse behind head coach Lefty Driesell and his assistant Terry Holland, but with freshmen ineligible for the varsity in those days, Davidson rookie Dick Snyder, a heavily recruited high-school All-American who would go on to average 12 points a game in a 15-year NBA career, spent the season tearing it up for Davidson’s freshmen.

“This guy was a notch, more than a notch, above everybody,” Martin says. “I said, ‘I’m going to keep up with this guy’ – I mean pointwise. And I went for a big number that night.”

Martin, a small forward who was anything but gun-shy, lit up Sanders-Sikes, scoring 40 points. Wingate lost, 102-93, but word got back to Driesell that there was a junior-college kid who might be worth checking out.

The next month, Wingate’s Bulldogs made the trip to the Charlotte Coliseum for a rematch with the Wildcats, and Driesell and Holland showed up. In baseball parlance, Martin struck out swinging. “I was bringing the ball up the court, and for some reason I just happened to glance over and saw both of them there,” Martin says. “That’s when I said, ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’ And I couldn’t do anything.”

The Bulldogs totaled only 55 points as a team, and Martin had bombed in his chance to impress, scoring a pedestrian 14. “I didn’t see them after the 10-minute mark of the first half. They had seen enough,” he says, laughing. “And I said, ‘I need to concentrate on baseball.’”

It’s a good thing for Florida State and college baseball that he did. After finishing his college career in Tallahassee, giving the pros a try and coaching junior-high, high-school and junior-college basketball, Martin returned to FSU in 1975 as an assistant baseball coach. He eventually took over the head-coaching gig in 1980 when Dick Howser left to coach the Yankees, and there Martin remained until earlier this summer, when he retired after 40 record-breaking years in charge of the Seminoles.

All he did in the interim was become the first college baseball coach – heck, the first NCAA coach in any sport – to win 2,000 games. His teams made the NCAA tournament every year he coached and reached the College World Series, in Omaha, Nebraska, 17 times, including an improbable run in his final season.

But Martin’s first trip to a college World Series came as a member of the Wingate Bulldogs.

Finding a way home

Martin’s description of himself as a player seems at odds with the consistent, team-oriented approach he took to his coaching career. Mike, what position did you play in basketball? “I shot the dadgum ball!” Mike, describe yourself as a baseball player. “I liked to hit early in the lineup so I could get as many at-bats as possible.”

1964 Wingate men's basketball team photo

A hotshot recruit from Garinger High School in Charlotte, Martin was a runner and a gunner, but it wasn’t so much self-centeredness as pure competitive fire that kept him taking shots and stealing bases. In the 1963-64 Wingate basketball team photo, Martin kneels front and center, his hand on the ball and his posture upright as if he’s itching to jump off the page and take a few jump shots.

In baseball, Martin made an instant impact. His speed and fearlessness on the basepaths helped drive Wingate to the Western Carolinas Junior College Conference title in Martin’s freshman season, which happened to be Ron Christopher’s first season as head coach.

Martin had wheels, and he was always itching to use them.

“If he just hit a single, you could count on him figuring out a way to cross home plate,” longtime Wingate English professor Beverly Christopher, Ron’s widow, says of Martin. “If somebody didn’t hit him there, he would steal.”

That first Wingate campaign, in 1963, very nearly ended with a trip to the Junior College World Series. Martin hit .443 and was named a juco All-American, but the Bulldogs lost to Brevard in the Southeastern Region final, missing a trip to Grand Junction, Colorado, by a game.

The next year, in the regionals, Wingate faced the same situation: one final game, with the winner heading to Grand Junction. The Bulldogs routed Anderson, 14-4, to earn a trip to the Rockies.

“It was such an exciting trip to make, because they did fly us that first year,” Beverly Christopher says.

“Flew out of Charlotte, of course,” Martin says dryly. “Didn’t fly out of Wingate.”

Most of Martin’s time at Wingate was spent in less luxurious settings, but perhaps that makes his memories all the more fond. He still has a Pavlovian response to the thought of a fried-baloney sandwich and a flavored ice from the Klondike. He was a Klondike regular, and he kept up with Marvin “Blackie” Williams, owner of Blackie’s Pool Hall, until Williams’ death in 2014.

Martin appreciated the College’s thrice-weekly chapel services, and he made sure he showed up to at least two of them a week, so he didn’t have to spend his afternoons cleaning the grounds of the College as punishment for having too many demerits. Afternoons, after all, were sacred times. “I didn’t have time to pick up paper in the afternoon,” Martin says. “I was trying to play two sports.”

Mike Martin posing in FSU clubhouse

Setting records

Much has changed in the intervening years – both at Wingate and at Florida State. Martin’s FSU teams traveled exclusively by chartered aircraft, unless the Seminoles were playing a nearby school. Not every Division I baseball team is afforded such luxuries, but Martin built Florida State into such a machine that his players get first-class treatment. The Seminoles practice and play games on the manicured lawn of Mike Martin Field inside the 6,700-seat Dick Howser Stadium, a facility any Triple-A team would be proud of. They sell out most games.

In Martin’s office overlooking the field bearing his name, shelves overflowed with mementos from arguably the greatest college-baseball coaching career in history. Conference coach-of-the-year trophies hid behind game balls commemorating wins No. 500, 1,000, 1,500. A framed photo showed the famous scoreboard at Fenway Park honoring Martin’s win No. 1,976, a tribute arranged by Boston College coach Mike Gambino.

Mike Martin at FSU practice

That record-breaking victory, a 13-inning, 3-2 squeaker over Clemson on the Tigers’ home field on May 5, 2018, moved Martin past the legendary Augie Garrido and into sole possession of first place all-time. It came a day after Martin was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Chase Haney, a Seminoles pitcher who played four years for Martin, says of the record win total. “No one’s ever going to break it.”

That’s a good bet to take. Martin became FSU’s head coach when he was only 35, taking over an established program run by Howser, for whom the “college baseball Heisman” would later be named.

The transition was as smooth as could be expected, with Florida State winning 51 games in Martin’s first season. The Seminoles won at least 50 games in each of Martin’s first dozen seasons and averaged 51 wins per year for his career.

And talk about consistency: The Seminoles won at least 40 games and made the NCAA Tournament every season with Martin at the helm.

Martin’s son, Mike Martin Jr., coached for his father for 22 years and has now taken over as head coach. As the program’s recruiting coordinator, the younger Martin both benefited from the program’s sustained excellence and contributed to it.

“People ask how in the world he can be so consistently successful and win at the level that he does,” Martin Jr. said just before his dad’s final season. “It’s because he’s the same every day. You know what you’re going to get. That consistency breeds a lot of people being content and playing hard for him.”

Although he admits to having had his share of “movies” – tirades caught on film – during his early days, Martin was for the most part an easygoing player’s coach. “He’s a lot easier to play for than he is to work for, I promise you that,” says his son, who goes by the nickname “Meat.” (His father is known simply as “11,” his FSU uniform number.)

“Do I get mad? Yeah,” Martin says. “But I also feel that encouragement is very important. You’ve got to be an even-keeled guy, not always looking to criticize. Look for a positive sentence to come out of your mouth, not negative to try to tear a guy down.”

Howser has been described in similar terms, as has another Martin coaching influence: Ron Christopher.

A mentor in Christopher

Christopher was barely out of college himself when he was named the head baseball coach at Wingate. The 26-year-old was suddenly in charge of a band of hotshot teens, but his demeanor proved perfect for that level. In his first stint coaching the Bulldogs, 1963 to 1972, Christopher guided the team to seven conference titles, eight regional appearances and three trips to the Junior College World Series.

“Some coaches just look out for records,” Martin says. “This man looked out for each individual, and he played a big role in the way I try to do things. He made me feel comfortable yet never too comfortable. That’s the kind of coach he was.”

Christopher was a disciplinarian in his own way. “When he said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ don’t do something different,” Martin says, “because he will find you a spot way away from him on the bench.”

Mike Martin and Ron Christopher in 1964

Christopher served as a mentor to Martin, laying the foundation for his Hall of Fame career.

“They had a really good relationship as player and coach,” Beverly Christopher says. “I think Ron saw his leadership abilities and maybe helped him develop them.”

Both wound up in numerous halls of fame (Christopher in the South Atlantic Conference, NJCAA and NAIA halls; Martin in the Florida Sports, North Carolina Sports and American Baseball Coaches of America halls). Both have facilities named after them (Wingate’s Bulldogs play in Ron Christopher Stadium).

“Had he not been my coach, I honestly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today, because he promoted me as an All-American for two years,” Martin says of Christopher. “I got a chance to play at Florida State because of what he allowed me to do.”

Christopher (wisely) moved Martin from the infield to centerfield – “I think he got tired of the errors I was making,” Martin says – and gave him the greenlight on the basepaths.

Martin took care of the rest, and it paid off when Morris “Mo” McHone, a former Wingate basketball teammate who was the manager of the Florida State basketball team from 1963 to 1965, mentioned Martin’s name to the Florida State baseball coach. With his 6-foot frame and speed to burn, Martin easily made the transition to the major-college ranks as a defensive star in centerfield. He was described in the 1966 Florida State media guide as “perhaps the finest center fielder ever to play for Florida State.”

“I ran decent,” Martin says in typical self-deprecation mode. “I say that because when I got into pro ball I found out how average I was. I probably ran a 6.8(-second) 60(-yard dash). And now that’s probably more than any outfielder that would start for us.”

Martin gave the pros a try for three years, but a broken thumb his first season slowed his progress. After being released, Martin coached basketball before FSU came calling. Still being relatively young and in good shape helped Martin relate to his players and instruct them well. After five years, he took the helm, and four decades later, he’s finally stepping down, a legend.

It wasn’t always easy, but Martin took the lessons he learned from Christopher and Connell and set records that will probably never be broken. He finished his career with a record of 2,029-736-4.

He might appear easygoing, but there is a fire that still burns within him. Again, it’s been a baseball career, but basketball illustrates it well.

“After a few practices, Bill Connell moved me to the starting team,” Martin says of his freshman year at Wingate, “and I can remember saying to myself, ‘If I lose this, I lost it. Nobody’s going to beat me out. I lost it.’ And that’s just what I’ve tried to do going through this job. I just try to stay ahead and do the best I can. That’s all anybody can ask of anyone: just do the best you can do.”

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