Tee Martin’s first game calling plays as USC’s offensive coordinator will come against No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 3.
LOS ANGELES — Tamaurice Nigel Martin is upset, despite just making public his commitment to play quarterback for Tennessee. It’s winter of 1996. While social media doesn’t yet exist, Martin, his family and friends had been hearing the judgmental grousing from Alabama and Auburn fans about a celebrated Mobile product leaving the state to play college football.
The car bringing Martin home stops in the Thomas James Place housing projects — known locally as Birdville because all the streets are named after birds — and the young man not yet popularly known as “Tee” Martin concludes what seemed like a cathartic rant.
“These people don’t know me, don’t know who I am,” Martin said. “They don’t care about me. I’m going to Tennessee because this is my decision, not theirs.”
He then casted a sideways grin because he knew the driver didn’t spend much time in one of the toughest sections of Mobile: “You know how to get out of here?”
This is a paraphrase of a two-decades old conversation, but Tee Martin, now USC first-year offensive coordinator, says he remembers it. It’s illustrative of a developing young person who was known as humble and polite but was also thoughtful, tough-minded and opinionated beneath the surface. Sort of like the 38-year-old man he has become.
“Tee’s whole life has been about decisions,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who was Tennessee offensive coordinator from 1993 to ’98. “His life growing up was not easy. It was about deciding whether to be on the good side of the street or the bad side.”
Sitting in his office at the John McKay Center in Los Angeles, Martin leans back in his chair and throws a small ball into the air, catches it and dusts off the past inside his head. It has been quite a journey, one that will circle back in some ways as he eyeballs the unenviable task of preparing for Alabama and a Nick Saban-led defense in the Trojans’ season opener on Sept. 3 at AT&T Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
Martin’s path to becoming an up-and-coming coaching prospect has been circuitous and fortunate. He emerged from poverty to win a national title at Tennessee but mostly washed out in the NFL, a result that still frustrates him. For a while, he felt as if he inhabited a football purgatory. Then it seemed as if everyone wanted to hire him.
He has been coached, recruited, mentored and hired by a veritable who’s who in football — Peyton Manning, Al Davis, Chip Kelly, Donovan McNabb, Lane Kiffin, etc., all make appearances in his life story — but he reserves his most effusive praise for a network of women, and youth and high school coaches who nurtured and kept him out of trouble while he grew up in an area where violence was a daily reality.
“For me, I never focused on what I didn’t have,” Martin said. “I focused on what I did have. What I did have, the biggest resource I had when I didn’t have financial resources, was the people.”
One of those people was Henry Pough, a pastor and youth football coach who recently represented Martin when he was announced as a selection for the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame.
Their enduring relationship began this way: Pough was coaching a football practice. A 10-year old Martin was watching. When a ball got loose and ended up at Martin’s feet, he threw it back.
“When he threw it back, I looked at my assistant coach and we were amazed,” Pough said. “So I said, ‘Back up a little bit,’ and we started throwing it at about 30 yards. It was a tight spiral with pop to it. I said, ‘Wait right there until my practice is over.’ So I went and started begging his momma to let him play.”
Martin’s mother, Marie Hall, wasn’t an easy sell. Baseball had been her son’s sport, and what about expenses and transportation? Pough said he had it covered.
Almost immediately, Martin became a star quarterback who played both ways when the best athlete on the field was needed. Pough said he often let Martin call his own plays, something Martin also would do as an upperclassman at Williamson High School as he became a national prospect.
“I don’t know if we could have won a game without Tamaurice Martin,” then-Williamson coach Curtis Horton said. “His senior year, we only had 27 boys out. We didn’t have a lot of talent. He carried Williamson on his back. We went to the third round of the playoffs.”
“For me, I never focused on what I didn’t have. I focused on what I did have. What I did have, the biggest resource I had when I didn’t have financial resources, was the people.”
Martin excelled on the football field and in the classroom. He was placed in an honors program at Williamson that met daily in the school library. Surrounded by bright, motivated young people, he became as competitive for grades as he was for touchdowns.
Football and school offered escape from the streets and the insecurity of his home life. His mother had him when she was 17, and his father was in and out of his life. While his mother worked hard and tried to find her way — she’s a nurse now — he was mostly raised by his grandmother and great grandmother.
“They called me a gypsy at one time because it was like we were moving every year, just to keep up,” Hall, his mother, said. “And it was some of the worst neighborhoods you could live in — the drugs, the killing, the gang banging, anything you could name, it was going on all around us. He didn’t get stability in his life really until he was at Tennessee.”
Martin resists talking about this time — “I never wanted the sad story to come up with the violins, growing up poor,” he said — and it eventually comes out almost like a dare. As in, do you really want to know? Like that time he was out with friends his junior year of high school.
“Things can escalate really fast,” he recalled. “Sometimes you’d want to be there to witness it — guys about to duke it out. But they weren’t going to play with fists. They were going to play with guns. And I was like, ‘Hmm, those are the words and I’m gone.’ I had a couple of buddies who stayed and one of them got shot and killed. We came there together. It messed me up for a while. It was like, ‘Imagine if you had stayed?’ “
Martin thought he could lead his friends away from trouble. Even as an adolescent, he saw the long game, the potential routes of escape. Horton and Williamson principal Fred Green, among others, told Martin he couldn’t save everyone and that his trying too hard might lead to guilt by association.
“I got harassed by the cops, pulled over wrongfully,” Martin said. “I’ve been right there with a friend being killed right in front of me. You’d hear about the murders. I had family members incarcerated. Everything that you could imagine — seeing without being a part of — I was there. I’ve been very close to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, too, but just had the wherewithal to know, ‘It’s time to go … right now. Like not five minutes from now, right now.’ And being strong enough to follow through.”
His primary and most consistent caregiver was his great grandmother, Mary Posey. She taught him how to take care of himself, how to make do with what they had and to be respectful to adults.
“It doesn’t matter how many pairs of pants you have as long as they are clean, as long as you iron them, as long as you smell good. Period. Go wash your hair, go brush your teeth. You’re fine,” Martin said. “I was way more confident than people maybe thought I should have been because of what they thought I didn’t have. I thought I was fly, even if I didn’t have the Jordans. I might have on Reeboks and these jeans I also wore on Monday, but I look better than you and your Jordans. I had this confidence because of how I was raised.
“I got teased. But I didn’t take being teased as something was wrong with me. I took it as, ‘You guys just wait. Give me a couple of years.’ It motivated me. To me, I was like, ‘Just wait. Just wait . I know where this story ends. You don’t.’ “
Martin’s favorite colleges were Miami and Florida State, but he particularly liked the Seminoles because of Charlie Ward. Martin wore No. 17 to be like Ward and Joe Gilliam and Doug Williams, pioneering black NFL quarterbacks. He wrote “McNair” inside his helmet for 1995 NFL first-round pick Steve McNair.
His decision to go to Tennessee was a carefully measured one. Then-Alabama coach Gene Stallings was honest with Martin: He thought Freddie Kitchens was the Crimson Tide’s present and future behind center. Martin didn’t want to compete for the starting job with friend Dameyune Craig at Auburn. That said, he also didn’t want to play immediately. He knew he had a lot to learn.
“If I’m going to sit, what better person to learn from than Peyton Manning, this young phenom?” he said.
The culture shock was extreme for Martin at Tennessee, socially, culturally and in football. Manning and Cutcliffe were doing offensive calculus in meetings, and it was Martin’s job to figure out what was going on and catch up.
Martin became a listener, an observer and would pepper Manning with questions.
“He was always very bright, always very studious, understood the game, was involved in meetings,” Manning said. “He understood the importance of preparation. The mental side of it, he took that very seriously. The great coaches are able to teach the physical side and the mental side of it. I think Tee understands the importance of both.”
Winning a national championship requires many things. Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer lauded Martin’s patience, noting how he never showed any frustration when Manning shocked many by returning for his senior season in 1997. That was noticed in the locker room, as was Martin’s ability to handle a halftime blistering from Cutcliffe during a visit to Georgia midway through that charmed undefeated 1998 season.
The Volunteers won their national title not only a year after perhaps the greatest quarterback in history left, but also without their best offensive player, running back Jamal Lewis, who blew out his knee in the fourth game of the season at Auburn. Martin didn’t put up huge passing numbers like Manning, but he made key plays. He rallied the Vols in the opener at Syracuse — a 55-yard, late-game scramble on third-and-10! — he beat Vols nemesis Steve Spurrier and Florida, he set an NCAA record with 23 consecutive completions against South Carolina, he beat favored Florida State for the first BCS national title, giving the program its first national championships since 1951.
“He’s what I call a great crossover leader,” Cutcliffe said. “Tee got along great with everybody on the team – offense, defense, seniors to freshmen, racial lines, across the board. And what he did so well that year is he meshed with Al Wilson, who was without question our defensive leader and best football player.”
Fulmer speculated that what Martin projected while leading the Vols in 1998 is the same quality that serves him as a college coach. When told USC offensive tackle Zach Banner said that Martin “sees the game like a coach and like a player,” Fulmer seems to nod through the phone.
“It’s just his persona,” Fulmer said. “He just has a really confident way about him. An excellent communicator. He’s like the pied piper with kids. It’s phenomenal to watch.”
Yet Martin’s journey is not without its tangles.
While he said he enjoyed the 1999 season — a 9-3 finish after a Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska — he also admits that the national title was the “pinnacle” of his playing career. The next decade, from his senior season to his hiring at New Mexico by Mike Locksley in 2009, including pro football wanderings — three years in the NFL, two years in the CFL — mostly featured professional uncertainty.
His NFL stats: 69 yards passing, one interception, no TDs.
“It was a blink of the eye,” he said. “You’re excited one moment, then you’re frustrated the next moment. You don’t feel like you got an opportunity and in a couple of years you’re out of the league. You ask, ‘What’s next?’ It’s hard for a young athlete in any sport to understand that he can’t play any more. There were some very dark moments, some dark times.”
His senior year at Tennessee, Martin became a father of twins, daughter A’Yadra and son Amari, but the relationship with their mother didn’t work out. Amari Rodgers, a receiver ranked 103rd on the ESPN Recruiting 300, was once committed to USC but changed his mind and opted for Clemson. Martin calls this “a sensitive subject,” but adds that his relationship is good with both.
In 2002, while he was trying to stick in the NFL, the NCAA looked into charges that he took impermissible benefits his senior year. He admitted taking money from a family friend, and he was eventually cleared by the NCAA and SEC.
“It still was a black eye in terms of the story,” Martin said. “When I got cleared, it was a short story at the bottom of the sports section but when the investigation first came out it was the top story.”
He married pop singer, Toya, in 2005 as his CFL career was ending, and they have two children, but figuring out what was next after the NFL wasn’t easy. He dabbled in TV, personal training and private coaching, feeling directionless but also uncertain if he wanted to commit to the grind of coaching. Tennessee, among others, turned him down for GA opportunities. He coached at Morehouse College and two Atlanta public schools before catching then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s eye.
He turned down Kelly’s offer of a job as a receivers coach in 2009 to be New Mexico’s quarterbacks coach, an eyebrow-raising decision, he admits.
“Now, I feel like an idiot. But at the time, I felt like that’s what I know. I knew I could coach quarterbacks,” he said, noting with some amusement that he would then coach receivers at Kentucky and during his first four years at USC.
He has remained at USC, even though he’s now on his third Trojans head coach, Clay Helton, passing on a number of southeastern opportunities. While Martin’s coaching reputation rose because of his recruiting ability, Helton handed over play-calling duties to him and has been effusive praising Martin’s feel for the game.
“In my 21 years, he’s the most complete coach I’ve ever been around,” Helton said. “I know I’m not going to have him forever. The guy’s going to be a head coach here soon.”
Martin waves away the head coaching talk, but more than a few athletic directors will be watching the USC-Alabama game with a focus on how Martin handles a defensive juggernaut.
He smiles, looks at the ceiling and throws the ball into the air again, “My motto is, ‘Grow where you’re planted.’ “
Thus far, through every challenge, that has worked pretty well for him.