Packer, St. Joe's still joined

Posted: Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Hardly anyone gets in a last word against Saint Joe's yapping pit bull of a coach, Phil Martelli.

Not a player. Not a fan. And if Martelli can do anything about it, surely not a talking head on television.

In this particular case, the head belongs to CBS commentator Billy Packer, who had the temerity to doubt Saint Joseph's credentials to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Martelli called Packer a ''jackass,'' among other less kind comments, and questioned Packer's basketball smarts. Packer responded by reminding everyone that, when he had a full head of hair and slimmer belly as a player, he helped Wake Forest beat Saint Joe's in the 1962 tournament.

In a delicious twist of tournament fate, Saint Joe's plays Wake Forest on Thursday in East Rutherford, N.J., and Packer will be there with his microphone and his opinions.

Packer suggested that Martelli brush up on the history between Wake Forest and Saint Joe's, but it seems there's no need.

''Saint Joe's was up four with 10 seconds left when he played,'' Martelli recalled Monday. ''We missed a foul shot, he came down and got a layup, and then they stole the inbounds play and he got a layup to tie the game. We lost to them in overtime. So we don't easily forget 40 years ago.

''As long as he doesn't reach over the end line and steal the ball or deflect the ball, he has a job to do and I have a job to do, and nothing will interfere with either one of those things happening.''

Martelli laughed out loud when Packer was picked to cover the game, he said, ''Then I silently applauded CBS because they get it. It makes for a good story above and beyond the game.

''I think what Billy Packer said probably was in a lot of people's hearts and minds during the year because we play an unconventional style and we play in a league that was outside the limelight.''

For anyone who thinks Martelli harped on Packer's comments or any other criticism to pump up his team, he's quick to deny that.

''Absolutely, positively not,'' he said. ''It's false motivation.''

Packer doesn't regret anything he said about Saint Joe's. When the top seeds were picked, Packer thought Duke, Stanford, Kentucky and Oklahoma State should have been No. 1 in their regions, and that Saint Joe's was the next best team.

''I would stand by my reasoning as we speak,'' Packer said Monday. ''The vast majority of people, I think, were in the same camp I was.''

The NCAA selection committee wasn't and Martelli surely wasn't.

''If I were in his shoes, I would have been just as adamant about my team's position,'' Packer said. ''As a coach, you have to defend your team, be proud of what it has accomplished. You feel you belong there. I would have actually felt a little disrespectful if he would have said, 'No, we didn't belong there.' Baloney.''

Packer says he won't be rooting for his alma mater against Saint Joe's, simply because he doesn't root for anyone.

''I couldn't care less who wins the game,'' he said. ''There's only two times that I rooted for somebody to win a game.''

The first was Packer's first national championship game when UCLA played Kentucky. It was John Wooden's last game.

''He was such a giant,'' Packer said. ''I wanted to see him win that game.''

The second time happened to involve Wake Forest, when coach Bob Staak was going through a tough year of injuries and illnesses with his team and was taking on a powerful North Carolina State team coached by Jim Valvano. Packer thought it would be a wipeout, but Wake Forest hung in and held a lead with a few minutes left.

''I felt, 'Gee, this guy deserved to win the game under these circumstances,''' Packer said.

Wake Forest wound up losing in overtime. A couple of weeks later, Packer ran into Valvano and admitted that in his heart he had been rooting for Staak in their game.

''He said, 'Let me tell you something. So was I,''' Packer said. ''It turned out that Bob Staak used to baby-sit for Jim when Jim was an assistant coach at Connecticut and Bob was a player there.''

Despite Martelli's tirade against him, Packer has nothing but respect for the way the Saint Joe's coach has brought his 29-1 team within two games of the Final Four. In fact, all four teams in East Rutherford this week, Packer said, are Final Four caliber.

''That's where college basketball is now,'' he said. ''There's a very fine line between the teams that are already out of the tournament and those that still remain.''

Martelli knows he has to yield to Packer on who gets the last word.

''He has the mike,'' Martelli said. ''You pick your fights where you think you can win, and this is one I can't win now, so I'll walk away.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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