Santa behind the scenes: How Miami’s football coach is giving back to Oxford — while winning

He may seem like Santa Claus these days, but there was a time, just a couple of years ago, in fact, that he looked like a big, pink bunny.

He was a grown-man’s version of the flustered, pajama-clad Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” except he was digging his floppy-eared fleece threads.

Chuck Martin – the ultra-competitive, sometimes outspoken and now gloriously successful football coach at Miami University – has been quite a gift-giver since coming to Oxford from Notre Dame six seasons ago.

His biggest offering is the way he’s given Miami its football name back.

The school had long been the most successful football program in Mid-American Conference history.

It is home to the Cradle of Coaches, where the fertile sidelines have been stomped by dozens of football legends – guys like Weeb Ewbank, Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Earl Blaik and Ara Parseghian – and where the career of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was launched.

But once Big Ben headed to the NFL, the clock soon struck midnight on Miami’s football success.

In the eight years before Martin arrived in 2014, Miami had had just one winning season. When he took over, the RedHawks were coming off an 0-12 season and riding a 16-game losing streak in which they’d been outscored, 564-213.

There was a dearth of talent and a lack of fans, so much so that the crowds at Miami’s Yager Stadium barely averaged 15,000, the minimum the NCAA required for a school to keep its Division I status.

But now, thanks to its Kris Kringle of a coach, Miami has its reputation – and its winning ways – back.

The RedHawks are 8-5 this season and just won the MAC title, only their second in the past 17 years.

They’re headed to the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where they’ll meet the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns on Jan. 6.

Before that Martin – often with the help of his wife Dulcie and their two children, 19-year-old Max and 15-year-old Emma – has been a behind-the-scenes Santa around Oxford and in the Dayton area.

But pushing aside praise the way a running back stiff arms a tackler, he’s quick to tell you the impetus for much of this has been Dulcie, whom he calls “The Giving Tree,” as in the classic Shel Silvetstein tale.

And speaking of trees, that’s where the Martin’s good deeds of Christmas began six seasons ago.

“That first year Chuck did it on his own,” Dulcie said. “He was Uptown, coming back from lunch one day, when he passed a Christmas tree lot the Lions Club had and asked what happened to the trees that didn’t sell.”

Chuck remembered the conversation: “They said something about making mulch out of them and I asked if we could buy them instead and donate them someplace.”

He did that and every year since – with the help of his family and an Oxford social media site that gets the word out – he provides at least 25 free trees to people who need them.

“When we started this our kids were young and we were trying to teach them the Christmas spirit of giving and how you should help others,” he said.

And Dulcie believes it should be a hands-on experience:

“I’m not a person who just writes a check to this or that. I truly believe if you walk out your front door, you’ll l find so many people in need.”

People at St. Mary Catholic Church in Oxford will tell you how each year, just before Christmas, the Martins anonymously adopt a family and get “everything” on the wish list.

Just a few days ago someone at the church learned of another family who needed help this Christmas. Dulcie and another woman volunteered. She said the family’s teenage boys were asking for a power cord because they were playing on an old Xbox 360 and it kept overheating.

Max – who is in his final year of home schooling to help with some special needs, his mom said – had gone along and immediately had an idea.

“He said. ‘Mom, we’ve got to get them a new Xbox!’“ Dulcie said. “That’s Max. He doesn’t know that much about money, but he certainly knows about giving.”

And Emma, a basketball player at Talawanda High School, chimed in after that, Dulcie said: “She said, ‘And they need a new remote, too.’”

All of this says those old lessons from the Christmas tree lot have been well learned.

And they’re reinforced in so many other ways, from Dulcie paying for the phone of a young kid in need so he can reach her or anyone else when he needs help to earlier his year when three high school boys were going to skip Homecoming because they had no dress clothes. Her trip to Men’s Wearhouse fixed that.

Thanks to Chuck, the Miami football team knows about hands-on giving, as well.

After an older man who’d been a Miami University police officer died suddenly from an aneurysm, his family was further stressed by a snowstorm that blanketed Oxford the day of the funeral.

To assist mourners, Martin had his team shovel the parking lots and sidewalks leading into St. Mary church. After that, the guys changed clothes and attended the funeral.

And when the Memorial Day tornadoes ravaged much of the Dayton area, Martin — at the urging of sophomore defensive back Ja’don Rucker-Furlow from Dayton’s Belmont High School — brought several players to a battered neighborhood in Beavercreek.

“When we got there, one of the guys we were going to deal with had grown up there and lived there most of his life,” he said.

“I said. ‘Look, we don’t have any chiefs, but we have a lot of Indians. Don’t give us any chainsaws or ask us to make engineering decisions. But if you want stuff moved, I’ve got some big, strong young men and they can move things in a hurry.’

“When he looked at our 300-pound lineman, it was like, ‘OK, we can cut the pieces a little bigger!’

“We were able to do things in four or five hours that he said would have taken him more than a month to do.

“When we left, he was in tears.”

From office to sideline

An All-American defensive back and all-conference kicker at Millikin University, a Division II school in Illinois where he also played basketball, Martin graduated with an accounting degree and soon had a job with Deloitte & Touche.

That’s how he met Dulcie Hernandez.

“He came to the company where I was working while I went to school,” she said. “I can’t picture him now being shy, but back then he was around me. That first year he didn’t ask me out. It was just, ‘OK, Bye!’ And it was a good probability we’d never see each other again.

“But the next year I hadn’t passed my boards yet, so I was still working there. This time he finally asked me out.”

She said her dad was especially pleased that she was dating an accountant: “But a few months after we met, Chuck told me wasn’t going to be an accountant anymore. He had decided he wanted to do this coaching thing.

“And I was like everybody else: ‘Is that a real job? What else you gonna do?’

For years, people used to ask me: ‘Does he teach, too?’ And I was like, ‘No. it’s just football.’”

He gave up his position at Deloitte to take a job at Wittenberg University in Springfield.

“He coached three sports and got $23,000,” Dulcie said.

She moved her belongings to Springfield, but that’s when Chuck showed he still was an accountant.

“At the time I had a really good job as a court recorder and I was working on a really big case that was headed to trial,” she said. “They wanted me to stay and work.

“Chuck said, ‘You’ve got to stay. We can’t pass up that money!’ So I spent five months in Chicago working that case.”

After the 1995 season, Martin got a job as the defensive coordinator at Millikin. He spent two years there and two more as an assistant at Eastern Michigan.

Then came his triumphant run at Grand Valley State University, an NCAA Division II school in Grand Rapids, Mich. After four years as an assistant, he was the head coach six seasons and from 2005 to 2009 his teams didn’t lose a regular season game. They won a record 48 straight and were the NCAA Division II National Champions in 2005 and 2006.

Both years Martin was named the American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year.

He parlayed that success — his teams went 74-7 in his six seasons — into an assistant’s job at Notre Dame and was the offensive coordinator when the unbeaten Irish made it to the national championship game, where they fell to Alabama.

In the spring of 2014 he said he accepted the Miami job for several reasons:

He wanted to be a head coach again. He wanted to prove his football chops — his Grand Valley State teams were good, but the program had been good when he took over, too — and he was especially intrigued by resurrecting the once mighty Miami program.

But the venture started off bumpy. His 2014 team lost its first five games, extending the winless streak to 0-21, longest in the nation.

“Honey, you’re really messing up our statistics,” Dulcie teased him.

As he worked to change a losing culture and bring in more talented athletes, he managed two wins his first season and three the next.

In 2016, his third year at Miami, his team stumbled to an 0-6 start and some fans grumbled aloud about his revival plan.

His team put the questions to rest when it rolled off six straight victories, something no team in NCAA Division I history had done before after an 0-6 start.

“Year three was kind of the miracle year,” Martin said. “We went 6-2 in the league. That was the turning point.”

The RedHawks made the St. Petersburg Bowl and after leading highly-favored Mississippi State for three quarters, ended up falling 17-16

Although Miami went 11-13 over the next two seasons, its records every year are deceiving.

The RedHawks play some of college football’s best schools in their non-conference schedule each season – an effort that gets Miami some big appearance fees, but does nothing for the team’s record.

Yet, it seems to gird them for conference play, where they’ve been superb.

That was the case again this year when Miami started out 1-3, losing at Iowa, Cincinnati and especially Ohio State, who drubbed the RedHawks, 76-5.

Martin spent the next week convincing his team it could be good this season if it played to its strengths and he said that thought bore fruit the following Saturday against Buffalo:

“We were down 14-3 early in the second quarter and I literally said on the sidelines, ‘Boys, we’ve been outscored 90-3 the past four quarters. The only way out of this is you. There’s no rescue party. Nobody believes in you.’

“I said, ‘You always talk about overcoming adversity. Well, this is adversity! I don’t even know why you think anything of yourselves. But if you do, now is the time …’”

And sure enough the team got a turnover that led to a field goal. It scored a touchdown after that and then a pick six.

Suddenly, the RedHawks were up 34-14 and finally won by two touchdowns. They won six of their next eight games after that, including anther come-from-behind 26-21 victory in the MAC title game against Central Michigan.

‘Special’ championship

When MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was about to present the championship trophy to him on a stage at Detroit’s Ford Field earlier this month, Martin said Max was right next to him and asked excitedly, “Dad, Dad… Can I get it?”

“He was so excited,” Martin said. “I told him he could and he held it over his head and everybody cheered. For me, that was as good as it gets.”

Dulce agreed: “My hand to God, it was like Max had just played the hardest game of his life. He held the trophy high and the players were in front of him and they cheered and the whole stadium roared and Chuck was real teary-eyed. It was one of the most special moments in my life.”

Martin admitted he’s a softie once the games end and he’s around his family:

“I’m a real bleeding heart. I cry at movies. I get choked up talking about my team. I get choked up about my family.”

Dulcie said, “He’s got a real special bond with Emma, too. He wants to make sure she’s as strong-willed as I am.”

While she said he relishes that in her, Dulcie admitted she’s had to practice some restraint:

“We decided when we were at Notre Dame that I stay off social media when it comes to the football team. It’s probably part of my heritage, but I‘m very protective and fiercely loyal.

“I would find somebody’s address and go ‘What do you mean by that mean comment you wrote?’”

Conversely she doesn’t hold back when it comes to helping others.

“That’s why I call her The Giving Tree,” Martin said. “I look at her Christmas list and there’s the neighbor’s nephew’s dog’s cousin’s brother. And I’m like, ‘Really?’

“But she can’t help herself. I tell her all the time, ‘C’mon, enough!’ But she just goes blindly on to the next one, getting this and getting that.”

And some of her most anticipated gifts each Christmas are those family pajamas. That’s why two years ago Chuck was wearing a pink bunny suit like Ralphie got from his Aunt Clara.

This year’s edition, like last year’s, is more subdued. But Dulcie said Chuck tends to relish the crazier ones. That was especially the case one Christmas when Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly hosted a party.

“Everybody was dressed up, but Chuck showed up in his Christmas pajamas,” Dulcie laughed. “Everybody was like, ‘Only you, Chuck! Only you!’

“He was the Grinch.”

But there was one difference.

Chuck Martin doesn’t steal Christmas.

This time of year, he and his family keep giving back.

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